Many political commentators decry ethnic voting patterns in Guyana and express despair about change ever taking place. These commentators are mostly inclined to support opposition parties whose desire is to see a change in government which, I hasten to add, is a legitimate objective. Some bemoan the wickedness of the East Indian mind; others the racism of the Government; others still, the wickedness of the people in general. But these commentators bury their heads in the sand and fail to recognize the persistence of ethnic voting patterns almost everywhere else in the world where the electorates consist of different ethnic groups no matter how small or large.
It is true that ethnic voting patterns exist in Guyana and has persisted since 1957. If this had not been so Guyana would have been unique. Countries with similar population compositions like Guyana, such as Trinidad and Tobago and Surinam, find it easier to attract support across the ethnic divide.
Twice in TT there was significant across the board ethnic support for an opposition with a modest degree of cross ethnic coalition. In Surinam cross ethnic coalitions are common to secure stable governments although ethnic voting patterns are fairly rigid. This has not happened in Guyana because of the poisonous aftermath of the ethnic violence in the 1960s and the rigging of elections and discrimination of the 1970s to the 1990s. It is not that Guyana is bad. Guyana is merely acting out its history. Those who demand power sharing and constitutional reform for such an objective conveniently ignore this history and the means of mitigating its impact on existing political realities.
The PPP has not been credited with the creative effort it has made to secure political support across the ethnic divide. In 2006 the Indian electorate would have been just below 40 percent. The Amerindian population was about 8 percent. If the PPP had won all their support, assuming Indians were 40 percent, it would still have needed 6 percent additional votes to obtain 54 percent which it got at the 2006 elections. No other political party has made the effort that the PPP made between 1968 and 1992 to build political support in conditions of severe constraints, including officially sanctioned harassment, violence and imprisonment. Not having done so they complain and demand.
But the dynamics are changing in Guyana and elsewhere and it does not appear as if the opposition is taking note. Barack Obama won the US presidency with the largest cross over vote in electoral history. I referred to Trinidad and Tobago and coalitions in Surinam. And it is happening elsewhere.
In all three cases leadership was a major factor.
In Guyana the ethnic composition of the population is changing. The last census was published in 2002. Its statistics were revealing. The Indian population declined from 51.93 percent in 1980 to 48.63 in 1991 and to 43.45 percent in 2002. The African population remained stable showing a modest decline between 1980 at 30.82 percent and 2002 at 30.20 percent. Between 1980 to 1991 it grew by 2 percent but fell 2 percent between 1991 sand 2002. The Amerindian population grew from 5.31 percent in 1980 to 6.46 percent in 1991 to 9.16 in 2002. The Mixed population grew from 11.16 in 1980 to 12.14 in 1991 to 16.73 in 2002.
The election results shows that the PPP/C gained 54 percent of the vote, the PNCR–IG 34 percent and the AFC 8 percent. The proportion of votes secured by the government and opposition has remained stable since 1992. Assuming that ethnic voting behavior continues, the PPP/C will be facing a diminishing Indian population in 2011 and the disadvantages (as well as the advantages) of incumbency. There is no sign that the much divided opposition is taking advantage of this situation or is otherwise advancing any creative political strategy except so far, a variant of the TT strategy of ‘big tent’ politics. In TT ‘big tent’ catapulted the combined opposition to success on the restoration of unity between the two divisions of the ULF, the ULF and COP, which would have won the elections anyway. In Guyana the opposition is divided and divisions are emerging in both opposition parties.
Fixation within an ethnic cocoon is a major concern with marginalization and discrimination the major battle cries, speeding up the loss of any possibility of creating across the board sympathy or appeal. In these conditions the public will be no doubt bemused at opposition claims that ethnic politics is keeping them out of power. While the PPP is cognizant of the changing dynamics created by the declining Indian population and the growing mixed an Amerindian population it does not, indeed cannot, rely on ethnic voting patterns. It markets it successes with great political dexterity and will rely on its achievements. If it relies on the Indian vote, it will lose the elections. Hence its modest competition to select the candidate who will bring in the largest possible support including cross over support.
The opposition has a case for more inclusive governance, wherever it may lead. This is consistent with PPP policy. But the opposition cannot vainly hope for such a situation to be negotiated without having undisputed leaderships, doing the groundwork, and advancing a cause with some energy. Indeed the PPP argues that it represents opposition supporters more effectively.
Neither ‘big tent’ politics and reducing the PPP to a plurality will work in Guyana unless the opposition overcomes its challenges. It needs to take a page out of the PPP’s political workbook. (www.conversationtree.gy).