The true cause of ethnic voting is ethnic parties

Dear Editor,

Clinton Urling writes (‘Hopefully our political leaders will rise to the occasion’ SN, Dec 18): “The proportional representation list system does not address directly the ethnic voting realities in Guyana. As a result, the outcome often leads to zero-sum and winner-take-all contests dictated along ethnic lines.“

In a PR system, each party is allocated seats in direct proportion to its aggregate votes. So by definition, it cannot be a zero-sum and winner-take-all system. Only the first-past-the-post system (the one Guyana had prior to 1964) can be defined as a winner-take-all system.

Still, Mr Urling’s point at another level turns out to be true. If the culture is by and large voting straight race in a system of ethnic parties, then the majority ethnic group and party will always win, and that party will assume the presidency and the executive branch of government. The minority party and ethnic group will feel permanently excluded from power, and this creates and fuels all sorts of perceptions and realities of an unfair system. You have to start asking whether this is real democracy.

In no real democracy can the same party win five elections in a row. It hasn’t happened anywhere in the world in the last 60 years. There have to be some unusual factors in Guyana’s political and cultural history that are responsible for producing such a flawed and deformed democracy. We need to identify these factors and change them. How do we fix this system? I will suggest the following:

(1) End the existence of ethnic parties. The PPP and PNC are nothing but ethnic parties. (Do not try to justify it by citing the presence of “window-dressers.“ Practically all the votes won by the PNC and PPP are “ethnic votes,” with a slight exception the latter also won a significant share of the Amerindian vote. This however does not negate the fact that PPP is an ethnic party. The PPP and PNC, by definition have always had ethnic leaders).

(2) Once these parties are transformed into genuine multiracial parties, they will be in a position to attract cross-racial support.

(3) The African PNC practised ethnic dominance for 24 years. This bitter legacy is a drag on the cultural system. The PNC is simply unable to win Indian votes. It has to transform itself into a genuine multiracial party, apologize for its misrule, present a platform to cater to the Indian constituency and learn to speak and campaign for votes in Indian villages.

(4) If the opposition PNC can win over 10-12 per cent of the Indian vote, there will be a different outcome to elections in Guyana.

Studies show that even in ethnically-driven and ethnically-dominated societies, 10-15 per cent of each ethnic group has always voted outside their ethnic base; they cast a vote based on issues. Why does Guyana defy this trend? Guyana provides an excellent study of a very flawed democracy. It is flawed not because of a winner-take-all PR system, but because of the historic factors and their legacy of 28 years, and the failure thus far for the ethnic parties to change their ways of doing politics in a multi-racial society.

Mr Urling is describing the symptoms and results, but inaccurately identifies the real causes. The true cause is the existence of ethnic parties and the practice of ethnic politics.

Yours faithfully,
Mike Persaud

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