Recently, Israel’s constitution (Basic Law) was changed to described the country as ‘the national home of the Jewish people’ and Jerusalem, even the parts claimed by the Palestinians, as the ‘complete and united … capital of Israel.’ Needless to say, the Palestinians and human rights groups around the world condemned the changes that, to some, merely constitutionalised the de facto apartheid that they claim already exists between Jews and Arabs. The interest here is with Sammy Smooha’s -Emeritus Professor at the University of Haifa, Israel – claim that Israel is an ‘ethnic democracy’ (‘The model of ethnic democracy: Israel as a Jewish and democratic state’).
Among other things, in an ethnic democracy the ethnic majority ‘claims ownership of a certain territory that it considers its exclusive homeland. It also appropriates a state in which it exercises its full right to self-determination. The ethnic nation, not the citizenry, shapes the symbols, laws and policies of the state for the benefit of the majority.’ As generally understood, democracy is based upon universal citizenship with equal rights, and, therefore, you could not be faulted for viewing his formulation as a contradiction and nothing short of an attempt to attach the virtue of a democracy to the Israeli condition.
Nonetheless, I believe that Smooha’s conceptualization contains some interesting insights and possibilities that may help us to understand political developments in Guyana. Indeed, it suggests that if the democratic orientation of the post-Cheddi Jagan PPP was extremely questionable the democratic trajectory of the current APNU+AFC government is towards what Smooha called ‘ethnic non-democracy.’
Professor Smooha argued that there is ‘in the West, two main forms of democracy for managing conflicts in ethnically or nationally divided societies. The classical and predominant form is liberal democracy… [and] … the other form is consociational democracy, … which takes ethnic and national differences as a given, officially recognises the main ethnic groups, and uses a series of mechanisms to reduce ethnic conflicts.’ However, because of the existence of strong ethnic bias some states, e.g. Latvia, Estonia and now Israel, deviate from the Western types and principles of democracy and define themselves as ethnic states that deny full citizenship to large ethnic minorities. To deal with this inconsistency he proposed ‘ethnic democracy’ as a new ‘distinct but a diminished type of democracy’.
Please note that we are here discussing, types of democracies, Therefore, when considering Guyana, we need to begin in 1992, for whatever justifications one may have had for supporting Forbes Burnham and Desmond Hoyte’s regimes, they were not democracies defined in term of majority rule after free and fair elections. According to the professor, several conditions give rise to the development of ethnic democracies.
The primary condition is the pre-existence of a majority ethnic nation. The second is the perception of a real or perceived threat to the ethnic nation that requires mobilisation of the majority in order to preserve its rights, the third is the ideological or pragmatic commitment to democracy without which a ‘non-democracy’ would emerge, and the fourth and final condition is a manageably sized minority. ‘If the minority is either small or disorganised, the majority can opt for a workable ethnic democracy without renouncing its domination. Facing a very large or too strong minority, the majority may choose ethnic non-democracy because it is too difficult to maintain ethnic democracy. It is a mixture of these factors that prompts the rise of an ethnic democracy rather than either a form of normal democracy or a non-democracy.’
Let’s be quite clear, the post-Cheddi Jagan PPP could not and did not intend to legally establish an ethnic democracy in Guyana: its goal was de facto political domination but its democratic ideology was similar to the right-wing Jews for whom the future lies in the Palestinians accommodating and accepting the reality of a Jewish state and trust being built so that they will all live happily together. Since the Palestinians have no intention of doing these things, their resistance and its consequences continue. Controlling the majority ethnic nation in Guyana, and confronted by a virulent ethnic opposition in the PNC, the PPP believed that the only way for the interest of its supporters to be protected was for it to utilise its control of the state to, in various ways, to establish its dominance.
By 2015, the ethnic and undemocratic nature of the post Cheddi Jagan PPP was obvious. It barefacedly appealed to its ethnic base to a point where the laws it enacted to quell the ethnic mobilisation of its competitors were used against it. The party had to resort to what it would have considered the most backward monarchial device if it had been utilised by others: mid-term prorogation of parliament. For a dozen years of its rule, the top positions in the judiciary, the third and vital pillar of a democratic state, were held by persons acting in their positions and delivering downright reactionary decisions having to do with the power of parliament in the budgeting process, presidential term limits etc. No one knows whether the figures being bandied about by the opposition now the government is true, but a significant number of persons lost their lives in various political-type confrontations with the PPP/C government and a regime-defined phantom squad etc.
Please note that I have said little about corruption, alienation and mismanagement, for given its comparatively short time in office, the accusations against the coalition government far outstrip those for a similar period of PPP/C rule. Indeed, the fact that some 7,000 workers were thrown out of work by a democratically elected government without being paid the severance allowance to which they are legally entitled if not unprecedented, is extremely rare in the modern democratic world, and certainly the way in which Guyana’s oil resources have been mismanaged thus far will not be surpassed for decades.
The PPP got itself into a fix because of its deficient political vision and management and thus it must bear the responsibility for the degeneration of democracy under its rule. While the arrangements of the normal liberal democratic state are unsuited for Guyana with its persistent ethnic conflicts, the PPP rejected the consociational option and chose a pathway towards a de facto ‘diminished’ democratic state rooted in ethnic dominance. It came close to stabilizing its rule but was eventually undone because, among other things, the opposition, with supporters located in the urban areas and the state bureaucracies, was too strong and also because its historical ideological stance was in conflict with its goal. Furthermore, the political instability its approach engendered led to the mass migration of its own supporters, thus destroying its majority!
Yet one suspects that the worst is still to come for in Smooha’s scheme it is the majority ethnic nation that, under pressure, develops into a ‘non-democracy’. What do we have if perchance, the ethnic minority, disgusted with its condition caused by the pursuit and existence of ethnic dominance, was able to somehow overthrow the government and is determined to hold on to power? Whatever the moral basis of the new regime the answer is simple: ethnic dictatorship!
During the 2015 elections, the coalition – particularly the PNC and WPA – gave the impression that it understood Guyana’s constitutional needs if democracy is to be maintained and the interests of all ethnic groups are to be secured. It promised to deal with this by way of constitutional reform and the second democratic option above, namely shared governance. It has, however, reneged on this commitment, has placed the security of even its most ardent supporters at risk and its behaviour in matters having to do with the electoral process and the judiciary, etc., are now viewed by many as precursors to the establishment of an ‘ethnic non-democratic’ state.