Anyone who fails to accept the fact that there is a strong correlation between race and politics in Guyana is either short-sighted at best or completely out of touch with our current political realities.
The above, however, does not in any way mean that we are inherently ‘racist’ as a society. There is no institutional racism in Guyana as happened in South Africa during the period of apartheid rule or was the case in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. We all buy from the same supermarket and travel in the same bus without any regard as to the ‘ethnicity’ of the owners.
Indeed, Guyana can be regarded as a fairly cohesive and harmonious society where the different ethnic groups coexist peacefully and with a fair degree of respect and cordiality.
The point I am seeking to make is that political differences along ethnic lines are not necessarily an indication of ‘racism.’ Nor is voting behaviour in Guyana any different from what obtains in other multiracial societies. In the United States, for example, there is a tendency for White middle class Americans to vote for the Republican Party which in part explains a Trump victory in the last presidential elections.
Race, it must be pointed out, was not always a factor in our politics.
There was a time when the Guyanese people rallied around the cry for social justice and where issues of class and commonality of interests took centre stage. That however was shattered on the altar of political opportunism in 1955 following the split of the PPP and which became more pronounced by the commencement of the 1960s when our politics became bifurcated largely along ethnic lines.
Race has always been a sensitive issue since the early days of colonisation and colonialism. It took an ugly turn during the early 60’s due mainly to the divide-and-rule tactics of our imperial masters. Thankfully, we have moved on from those dreadful years and we are today a much more cohesive and tolerant society.
Two recent episodes, however, showed that ethnic sensitivity should not be taken for granted. One is the refusal by a city school to allow an Amerindian boy to display his culture. The school did the right thing to apologise to the student but not until after his parents and concerned citizens mounted a picketing exercise.
The other and much more troubling from the standpoint of our evolving democracy was the decision of the Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission to disallow a PPP-appointed Commissioner, Mr. Robeson Benn, from speaking at a statutory meeting of the Commission after he reportedly make some remarks at a public forum to the effect that there was an ethnic imbalance at the GECOM Secretariat. Any unbiased observer familiar with the staffing configuration of the GECOM Secretariat would not be surprised by such a statement. The decision by the GECOM Chairman prompted a walk-out by the PPP Commissioners.
Like it or not, there is a fair degree of anxiety regarding the capacity of GECOM to deliver a free and fair elections at the upcoming elections. This anxiety was not helped by the unilateral appointment of the GECOM Chairman by President David Granger. This most recent action by the GECOM Chairman will only serve to undermine confidence and trust in the electoral process.
My own view is that the action taken by the GECOM Chairman is both unwarranted and unnecessary and can be construed as an attempt to curb dissenting views on fundamental issues pertaining to the delivery of free and fair elections.
Elections must not only be free and fair but must also be seen to be free and fair. That being the case, it is my view that it is not an unfair comment if any Commissioner, whether in their private or official capacity makes statements that are intended to correct perceived imbalances in GECOM.
There is need for GECOM to put greater emphasis on confidence building measures. One such area is in its recruitment policy which should reflect our ethnic diversity. There is no point in beating around the bush. If there is a concern by Commissioners that this is not the case, measures should be put in place to address that concern.
Commissioner Benn’s call for a more ethnically balanced GECOM Secretariat should not be dismissed as frivolous or lacking in substance.