Putting someone from another ethnic group as leader of an ethnic party does not necessarily bring votes

Dear Editor,

Reference is made to Mr Mike Persaud’s letter captioned, ‘Ramkarran and Nagamootoo not going back to PPP’ (SN, Nov 30).  I was not aware that the two gentlemen had communicated to Mr Persaud that they wanted nothing to do with PPP again. Be that as it may, traditional PPP supporters, as well as party officials, want the men (and others) back into the fold viewing the PPP as their natural home that they helped to build and fortify over decades. Whether there will be reconciliation depends largely on the leadership of the PPP, and as I noted their return will improve PPP’s chances of winning a majority at the next election.  This has nothing to do with Indian versus African triumphalism – it is common sense politics and analysis with the goal of a party being to win elections.

With regards to ethnicity, Guyana is not unique in experiencing conflict or having ethnic parties. I have travelled to numerous multi-ethnic societies witnessing first-hand ethnic conflict and I have written extensively on this paradigm. Most multi-ethnic societies have ethnic political parties and organizations or ethnic voting, including the US and India. Ethnicity is a complex and complicated issue that does not render itself to an easy or simplistic solution like putting someone from a different ethnic group to lead a party. If that were the case, every society would have done it. Virtually no country has dissolved its ethnic parties or solved its ethnic conflict – not even through repression. From experience, any effort by dictatorships to suppress ethnicity, as happened in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Guyana, Turkey, etc, led to increased ethnic prejudice among groups after the societies were freed up. Ethnic parties or organizations, by nature, can’t be led by someone from another ethnicity and there is virtually no example where it was tried – not in South Korea, Ireland, Japan, Russia, America, Belgium, Switzerland, China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad, Suriname or Guyana. There are thousands of ethnic parties with some countries having several parties competing to represent an ethnic group as in Fiji, Mauritius, Ireland, Belgium, Israel, Suriname, etc. Some societies, like Fiji or Malaysia, have rules on how competition takes place for ethnic support allowing intra-ethnic contests. Guyana’s political system is designed to almost preclude intra-ethnic competition and virtually no second party has been successful at winning a group’s support. So we end up with just one party representing an ethnic group with the exception being since 2006 when Africans took a chance with the AFC but abandoned it in 2011 and the Indians taking a chance with it in 2011 (I can’t say whether Indians will remain for the next election because they are disappointed that AFC has abandoned them).

In Guyana and many other societies, historical antecedents, make it virtually impossible for a party to be led by a non-ethnic. It could happen in the future as indeed has happened in the US in the Democratic Party with the bi-racial Barack Obama elected as President.  The Republican Party also chose a Black as its Chairman in 2011-12. But even with that move, the Republicans got less than 1% of the Black vote in 2012, confirming that putting someone from another ethnic group as leader of a party does not necessarily bring votes. The literature refers to such action as “ethnic tokenism.” Thus, putting Sam Hinds to lead an Indian party or Rupert Roopnaraine to lead an African party is tokenism and will be seen and repudiated as such. There were Indians in the PNC and Africans in the PPP and parties had cross-racial candidates as their number two.  Both parties have a smattering of Indians or Africans but it made no difference to how people perceived the party or how they voted.  It will not lead to an increase in support from the other ethnic group. The statistics would reveal that Sam Hinds has not been successful in bringing hordes of voters to the PPP from his ethnic group since 1992 and neither has Roopnaraine to the WPA or PNC. That is the ethnic reality and it has nothing to do with the character of the two men – decent, honest and democratic and most qualified for the post.

The suggestion of a cross-racial candidate is very naïve. Will the Chinese put a Tibetan to lead their party or will the Israeli Likud put an Arab to lead or will the Malays put a Chinese or the Sikhs put a Christian to lead their parties?  Putting someone of another ethnicity to lead an ethnic party will have a significant effect on party supporters driving them to another party that represents their ethnic interests and it will not have any significant impact on non-supporters as examples around the world have illustrated.  In Fiji, for example, the popular Jai Ram Reddy built an alliance with the Black Fijian Party of Rabuka and both were wiped out in democratic elections with Indians switching to Mahendra Chaudhry’s party and the Black Fijians voting for another ethnic Fijian party.  The same happened in Mauritius when Anerood Jugnauth formed an alliance with the Creole Party – Jugnauth got wiped out with the Indians transferring their support to Navin Ramgoolam’s party. There are so many other examples around the world. That is the power of ethnic appeal. Also, one must not forget that the PPP did make a serious effort at winning over Africans and at the 2011 election, that cost it the majority. The AFC carried out a hushed campaign telling PPP supporters that the PPP abandoned them for PNC supporters.  It was an effective campaign that made the AFC win a lot of Indians.

The PPP conceded publicly that it abandoned Indians in order to win over Africans and lost much of the base – ‘lost iguana and cutlish’ as they say in local parlance. The PPP is courting the base again but it is not certain they will turn up at the polling booths because many of them told NACTA interviewers they still remain neglected. The PNC, on the other hand, is running a very effective house-to-house campaign and could very well pull off a victory at the next election.

Ethnic conflict has eluded solution.  It needs to be managed to allow for participatory involvement in state affairs and economic development as obtains in Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, etc. I believe a similar system as exists in the US could work in Guyana – giving voters the opportunity to become members of a party and empowering them to select the executives who manage the party’s affairs as well as voting in primaries for nominees for elective positions (including president and mps, regional councillors, etc).

This process will allow candidates to compete for support across narrow ethnic confines and may help to break the prison of ethnicity as is increasingly happening in the US.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram

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