Democracy works best when there are frequent turnovers of power

Dear Editor,

Guyana has two large ethnic groups; one group has a slight numerical advantage over the other. These two groups together account for 85 per cent of the population. There are two large political parties, both perceived as ethnic parties, and each draws the bulk of its support from a single ethnic group. Cross-racial voting is low.

These facts attest to the ethnic and political divide of the country. The Constitution, however, does not indicate there is any recognition of these facts, nor does it include any article or clause to address these ethnic divisions. The result over the last 60 years is that the African-based party ruled for 28 years; the Indian-based party for 23 years. The out-of-power ethnic group seethes and claims discrimination during the whole time the other group is in power. Racial and political tensions and fear of outbreak of riots are always barely contained. It is very difficult to have social and economic development in a society where the racial insecurities and tensions are ever present.

When the Indo-ethnic PPP ruled, the out-of-power African activists called for “power-sharing”. The African group saw themselves as being excluded from executive power. (I had published letters at that time saying the Africans’ position was not without merit. At that time, Indians represented 48.6% of the population, and with some help from outside groups it looked as if they were going to win every election until eternity. Now, thanks to changing demography, that advantage has been removed.)

Currently, the Indian group is out of power, and it is their turn to seethe and complain. We do not have a tradition of frequent turnovers of power in this country. So, I pose this question: Do we have a good constitution in this country? Do ethnic political parties, once in office hold and control all the levers of power and do they have a habit of manipulating state institutions to their advantage? The Constitution of Guyana provides few checks and balances on executive power; and when it does, as Mr Lincoln Lewis claims, they simply do not work.

The political parties are nothing but institutionalized wellsprings of ethnic politics. Their ideology is ‘ethnic triumphalism’. The African party is currently in power. Of 125 persons appointed to the boards of state corporations and state agencies, only 15 were Indians. Of 17 permanent secretaries appointed in the last two years, only one is Indian. Is this a case of the spoils system gone amok, or discrimination against the out-of-power ethnic group?

Mr Lincoln Lewis has argued thus: we have a good constitution; the parliaments over these last 60 years were too lazy. They did not pass enacting legislation, he says, to give fulfilment to the articles and clauses already written into the constitution. I think Mr Lewis, though well-intentioned and known as a gentleman of intellectual integrity is not looking at the hard realities of what obtains in Guyana today.

Ethnic triumphalism is the ideology embedded in our politics. The Constitution is silent on these abuses. This problem can only be addressed by a complete rewrite of the constitution.

Suriname practises a form of consociational democracy. In this system, people are free to vote for their own ethnic parties. Each ethnic group has two parties; two alliances are formed, each representing a group of all ethnic parties. The winning alliance at the election takes power. In this deal, each ethnic group is seen to be represented in the executive. Wholesale ethnic discrimination in jobs and state resources, as is the case in Guyana, does not take place. Each ethnic group has representatives in the executive branch of government.

Mr Lincoln Lewis thinks all Guyanese need to be educated about what a great constitution we have in Guyana. I don’t think a great constitution can inadvertently produce such disastrous results. It is not a lack of education – it is a grossly deficient constitution.

For beginners, we need a constitution that recognizes the reality of ethnic parties and apportion their limits to state power, or outlaw the existence of ethnic parties and devise a new Constitution. Democracy works best when there are frequent turnovers of power and all ethnic groups feel secure. The current Constitution does not meet this test. The Constitution cannot be studied in a vacuum, separated from the quality of democracy it produces.

Yours faithfully,

Mike Persaud