The drive for ethnic dominance is an unavoidable consequence of our social history. It manifests itself in numerous ways and appears in discourses relating to social and economic policy. More importantly and fundamentally, it appears in political competition. Ideas of ethnic dominance have always shaped our society, and politics could not have escaped it even if it had tried. Our main political parties understand this reality but have each constructed an historical narrative that tells an alternative story. The narratives have subsisted together with and have had a parallel trajectory with the drive for ethnic dominance.
Even the youthful leaders who formed the early political movement, the Political Affairs Committee of 1947 and the Peoples Progressive Party in 1950, did so with the understanding that ethnic unity was a vital pre-requisite. The split of the PPP in 1955, although overtly between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists,’ was led by an African Guyanese, Burnham, the ‘moderate’ and the walkout was against the Indian Guyanese, Cheddi Jagan, the ‘extremist,’ resulting from a demand made by Burnham for ‘leader or nothing.’ But within a short time the split inevitably developed ethnic dimensions. The ethnic violence of the 1960s and two decades of authoritarian rule have together ensured its rigidity and sharpened its significance as a factor in Guyana’s politics unlike, say, Trinidad and Tobago, and have brought home the need to create political and constitutional structures that would undermine its political potency.
There is a wide acknowledgement that the politics of ethnic dominance is bad for Guyana. The concept that ‘everybody must cooperate’ is one that has deep roots throughout our society. To a large extent, the concept has been translated into reality in everyday life. That is why Guyana remains a single nation, largely at peace. But that acknowledgment is merely to deflect the feeling of ethnic siege which conditions the existence of the major race groups. It is a learned survival technique without which our society would disintegrate.
While in government between 1964 and 1992, the PNC did a great deal for Guyana. The establishment of Carifta which led to the Caribbean Community, which is now a foundation of our economic and foreign relations, was partly the vision of Burnham. Guyana’s progressive role in international affairs and its early recognition of Cuba were important events in its defiance of the Cold War. The challenge to foreign control of the economy and notions of self-reliance, were all positive. During those years, the PPP established its credentials as an enemy of poverty, developed programmes for its elimination in Guyana and worldwide, became a recognized international militant in support of progressive and anti-imperialist causes worldwide, fought hard for internal political, trade union and civic unity against authoritarian rule and sought political unity with the PNC. These are some of the randomly selected narratives that the two main political parties can claim that had nothing to do with ethnic dominance. And in their own ways each party sought to extend its appeal across ethnic boundaries without much success; but quietly guarding their ethnic flanks to maintain ethnic support determined their responses to many things. It still does today.
Despite the fact that the PPP knew the seriousness and potentially impactful nature of the ethnic divide, as 1947 and 1950 demonstrated, it sought to minimize its importance from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s by promoting the idea that the ethnic struggle would be subsumed by the class struggle. This showed no signs of happening and the proposal for a national patriotic front government in 1977, in which the PPP would be the junior partner in government, impliedly recognized that the class struggle would not be enough to diminish the ethnic struggle into insignificance. In the politics of the period, the underlying theory was that unless there was unity of the working class, which could have been resolved only by political unity, the progressive achievements of the PNC government could not have been sustained.
After 1977 and up to 1992 the PPP continued to promote shared governance and ‘winner does not take all,’ even though after 1985 the Hoyte government reversed what the PPP believed were Burnham’s progressive economic policies. By then ethnic unity was seen as still necessary for political unity, at least among opposition parties, and stability, which in turn was necessary for economic development.
The PNC embraced shared governance in 2002 but by then the PPP held political office and triumphalism prevailed. However, the unrest instigated by the PNC after the three elections from 1992 caused ‘shared governance’ and ‘winner does not take all’ to still retain resonance. The heirs of the PPP without Cheddi Jagan, the chief ideologue behind the drive for political unity since the early 1960s, and even from 1947, declared that before shared governance can be discussed, the political parties must engage in ‘building trust and confidence.’ The completion of the then pending constitutional reforms and their implementation in practice were stated to be the benchmarks to judge whether trust and confidence were established. Cooperation agreements between the PPP and PNC that followed, and the policy of ‘building trust and confidence,’ itself, were eventually abandoned by the PPP.
This history has kept the end of ethnic dominance as a fundamental goal of our politics. Recognising this, the APNU+AFC coalition has put forward bold constitutional proposals to realise this objective.