‘We need reforms to sustain the present consensus regime’

On January 14, Mr Khemraj Ramjattan made a presentation in Trinidad and Tobago to the Congress of the People (COP) convention entitled “The Relevance of Third Parties in race based politics: Case of Guyana”, which, to me, was more telling in what it did not say rather than what it did. Mr Ramjattan had the opportunity to properly set the foundation that could have resulted in something important but failed to take it.

He began his presentation with the contention that the outcome of the recent election in Guyana provides good material for his topic, claiming that it is “abundantly clear that… third parties have a relevance in race-based societies which previously were dominated by two generally tribal parties. …. the AFC proved to be a positive force in that it was able to create a minority government, and to place itself to be that balance of power….”  He then proceeded to give five reasons why he believes third parties are relevant in ethnically divided societies.

Firstly, good governance requires the broadest possible participation in the work of government and a third party provides greater opportunities for such participation. Secondly, periodic elections are insufficient to promote in-depth social discourse; a third party provides greater political competition and the kind of environment in which complex issues are better ventilated and the people brought closer to the government. Thirdly, Guyana’s politics have been characterised by two dominant race-based parties and this is not good for the polity. What is required is issue-based politics and although third parties may not win government as such, they can help to bridge the racial divide and change the politics of the society.

Fourthly, he sought authoritative authentication by quoting Donald Horowitz to the effect that in ethnically divided societies: “Citizens interact primarily with other members of their ethnic community, strengthening social solidarities. When elections are introduced, voting becomes an opportunity to affirm one’s affective ties to the community and to express group loyalties. As such, parties are unable to attract voters from other ethnic groups, and no swing voters exist. This means that the losing party cannot hope to increase its vote share in subsequent elections by enlarging its support base.” He concluded from this that since the numerically larger group usually consistently wins the elections and allocates a disproportionate amount of state resources to its group, a kind of majority dictatorship develops that can lead to civil strife and bloodshed. Indeed, he said that this result was only narrowly avoided in Guyana after the last elections because of the positioning of the AFC.

Finally, he claimed that a tribalistic political environment consisting of the PPP and PNC (now APNU) existed until the formation of the AFC, which is attempting to break the back of the existing race-based politics.

Much can be made of the correctness, logical consistency and conflatability of Mr Ramjattan’s five points, but I am disappointed that the theoretical perspective provided by the quote from Horowitz, his own experience and the good sense he showed when considering the situation of COP in Trinidad and Tobago failed to take him in the direction of making sensible policy suggestions for his own party. What he gave as the direction along which the AFC should proceed was little more than a repetition of the basic strategy of all third parties in divided societies.

Experience must have indicated to Mr Ramjattan the precariousness of both the AFC’s present position and the opposition majority in the National Assembly. AFC support among Afro-Guyanese more or less evaporated with the coming of APNU: a seminal reminder of how other non-race-based parties before it also failed.

As the PPP/C is still in government, it might prove more difficult to modernise it, but given our context, should that party succeed in rejuvenating itself, what is to stop it from landing a similar blow to the AFC in a future election? If Mr Ramjattan believes, as he appears to, that the present political context is progressive what are his recommendations for sustaining it?

His own good sense leads him to support the COP in its demand for constitutional reform: “The unfairness of the first past the post system saw COP in the 2007 Trinidad and Tobago Elections not getting a single seat, although it got 23 % of the votes! I could understand your Resolution for constitutional change to bring in PR. I can bet that the UNC and PNM will not support such a change. These older tribal parties always want to see the demolition of a third party which matters, like the COP and an AFC!”  In passing, Horowitz’s contention that “Guyana is consistent with Maurice Duverger’s conclusion that ‘on the whole PR maintains almost intact the structure of parties existing at the time of its appearance’”(1985: “Ethnic Groups in Conflict:” University of California Press) should be noted.

Mr Ramjattan recognises the need for constitutional reform to enhance the position of the COP in Trinidad and Tobago, but when he comes to his own party, he offers nothing but the commonplace. “I want to add that third forces in such a landscape will do well and may even emerge as first choices if they pursue: A) A national vision of healing and reconciliation with the end of embracing all; B) Policies which are anchored in fundamental human rights; C) Fairness among ethnic groups with special attention being paid to what is being called recently “horizontal equality”; D) The protection of minorities, including the indigenous peoples and women.”

It would appear that Mr Ramjattan does not understand what Horowitz was saying, and believes that third parties in Guyana and elsewhere have not attempted the just-mentioned approach with little success. Horowitz’s long association with these issues led him to a more concrete policy conclusion that requires constitutional reform: devolution of power, electoral systems change, etc. In relation to the latter, for example, he claimed that attempts can be made to utilise electoral systems to: “1. Fragment the support of one or more ethnic groups, especially a majority group, to prevent it from achieving permanent domination. 2. Induce an ethnic group, especially a majority, to behave moderately toward another group and engage in interethnic bargaining. 3. Encourage the formation of multiethnic coalitions. 4. Preserve a measure of fluidity or multipolar balance among several groups to prevent bifurcation and the permanent exclusion of the resulting minority. 5. Reduce the disparity between votes won and seats won, so as to reduce the possibility that a minority or plurality ethnic group can, by itself, gain a majority of seats.”

What Mr Ramjattan, the ruling party and the entire opposition need to do if they actually care about our future is to urgently put on the table some workable suggestions for sustaining something like the present consensual system. As Horowitz concluded: “The principal impediments to democracy in severely divided societies do not derive from deficiencies of knowledge.

The experience of conflict-prone societies is more revealing than might have been thought on questions of conflict reduction and democratic institutions. The problems are not intellectual but political. There is no case to be made for the futility of democracy or the inevitability of uncontrolled conflict. Even in the most severely divided society, ties of blood do not lead ineluctably to rivers of blood.”