The concept of democracy was never static

Dear Editor,

My letter titled: ‘Guyana is not a democracy’ (SN, April 1) sought to provoke a national debate on the topic. Well, I got more than I bargained for, especially on the SN blog, with some accepting the Encarta definition of democracy: “a government that has been elected freely and equally by all its citizens; a system based on the principle of majority decision-making.”

I have no doubt in my mind that there are thousands of people in Guyana, yes all supporters of the Indo-ethnic PPP who share this definition of democracy. But let us assume for a moment that African-Guyanese were the majority group (ceteris paribus), then what would these people’s position be?  Of course the Afro-ethnic PNC would win every election. Then the Indian group would be up in arms questioning whether Guyana’s practice of democracy should accord with the letter and spirit of Encarta’s definition.
One person said the people of Guyana know what kind of democracy they have, and that Guyana should be left to the Guyanese. If the Guyanese people are happy with their brand of democracy, however, why are so many people and groups calling for power-sharing? And, of course the Greeks first invented the concept of direct democracy. But hasn’t the theory and practice of democracy been steadily evolving and perfected?

In Guyana the WPA practised a form of group leadership, and the AFC rotates its leaders by ethnicity; the PPP perfected the window-dressing concept – an Indian leader as president, with an African prime minister. Aren’t these innovations all about perfecting democracy – making it work better, or simply addressing a deficiency or particular condition in the local environment or country.
The concept of democracy was never static. It is forever being adapted, changed and perfected. Consider a country with ten provinces.  Province A alone has close to 50 per cent of the population, with predominantly one tribe or ethnicity. The party in province A wins the election regularly with little or all most no votes from the other nine provinces, not forgetting the other provinces are populated with different tribes. If we were to stick to the Encarta concept of democracy, this nation (not so fictional) would quickly disintegrate. But in real life this problem was easily addressed by requiring the victorious party to win in at least three provinces – to broaden its mandate both geographically and tribally/ethnically.

Constitutions are either wholly written, or partly written, partly unwritten. A written section or a traditional rule widely accepted and practised requiring a broad mandate that includes all the provinces or tribal/ethnic groups is institutionalized to make democracy work.

An easy solution to the Guyana problem is to end the practice of ethnic parties, and the PPP and PNC are both ethnic parties. Both follow an unwritten rule that requires their leader to belong to a particular group. Being perceived as an ethnic party makes it difficult if not impossible to win cross-racial support. What we end up with in Guyana is a party elected by the majority Indian group, and with practically no support of the Africans who make up 30 per cent of the population.
My convictions about the cause come from my work in 1990-92 in the New York area for free and fair elections. A Washington Post reporter in 1991 told me the then US ambassador in Georgetown had told him that you cannot have democracy where every last man votes race. And a BBC man in 1990 telephoned me from London to say that what we were really fighting for is to replace an African government with an Indian one Noting what happened over these last 20 years I can only conclude that the US ambassador and the BBC man were both correct.

What we have in Guyana today is a government elected by the Indian majority group. It is not a broad-based mandate to govern a country like Guyana with such a unique racial breakdown.

If the way we do democracy in Guyana does not change, the Indian party will be in power for another 40 years. I do not know of any nation that has elected the same party for twenty or more years. Guyana is the only one. And it is because of the malfunctioning of democracy, namely, the existence of wholesale ethnic voting for ethnic parties. And, the ethnic parties, PPP and PNC are both smug and happy about this palpable deformation of the practice of democracy. The PPP is based in the Indian-majority group, and sees no need to win African support; as for the PNC, the least you can say is that its current leader Robert Corbin does not understand this thing called democracy – that its core idea is to win votes across all racial constituencies. His notion is to win only African votes.

I must acknowledge that Drs Prem Misir and Randy Persaud, both gentlemen, are on the payroll of the government and have defended the bona fides of Guyana’s democracy. They have made the claim that the Indian share of the population is 42 per cent, and since the Indo-ethnic PPP regularly wins with 54 per cent of the vote, then it must be that the PPP wins the African vote. This claim is false. The PPP has a lock on the Amerindian vote; the PPP’s mandate is based wholly on the Indian and Amerindian vote, with practically no support from Africans.

I have done polling in Guyana to ascertain the level of cross-racial voting, and I have to say African people do not vote for PPP, nor Indian people for the PNC – not even 5 per cent. If Drs Misir and Randy Persaud want to challenge me on this fact, they should do a poll and publish the results.

The ABC countries together with Norway have a moral responsibility to gently nudge and pressure the ethnic parties to change their game.

Yours faithfully,
Mike Persaud

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