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Bridging the ethnic divide

first_imgMost Guyanese would concede that ethnicity plays an inordinate role in our politics and that the way the latter has structured our political participation has not been positive. Since the claim that “modernisation”, set into motion after WWII , would soon make the “primordial” roots of ethnicity disappear has been proven quite premature, it behoves policymakers to take another look at our political system and institute changes that could steer our political behaviour in more positive directions. In fact, evidence gathered during the last 50 years had demonstrated that ethnicity and other bases of “identity politics” have now become the predominant form of political mobilisation – even in the developed countries such as Britain and the US.The call for “constitutional change” in Guyana is one initiative to achieve the positive aim, but unfortunately, most of its initiators have studiously avoided the elephant in the room: the aforementioned ethnic divisions that form the bases of our political activity. Unless we begin by acknowledging this reality and not wishing it would disappear by “post racial” incantations, we will be dooming ourselves to spinning wheels, that continue to take us backwards.Ethnic politics is, first of all, encouraged by the logic of democracy which focuses on agglomerating numbers to form majorities. In such a milieu, it is to be expected that politicians will exploit any avenue, including the omnipresent ethnic identity to achieve the maximum agglomeration. The promise of rewards if people “vote for their own” goes beyond material incentives, since power in the hands of one’s group offers a psychic satisfaction that springs from the ethnic identity itself.Constitutional change, then, should offer incentives that would encourage politicians and political persons to not necessarily eschew their ethnic labels and constituencies but to reach across such constituencies. This normative practice becomes easier to achieve when, as in Guyana presently, no single ethnic group constitutes an absolute majority. Politicians would be forced to moderate their rhetoric for any one group or against any other group and this behaviour should create a moderating centripetal mobilisation effect.The present Guyanese Constitution, which was supposedly extensively amended in 2000 to address Guyana’s challenges, unfortunately left intact the requirement for a government to be elected with not even a majority of votes by the electorate but by a plurality. Additionally, it prohibits coalitions from being formed after elections, the most propitious time for groups, ethnic or otherwise, to modify their platform to strike bargains. These two stipulations must be changed at a minimum.But outside of explicit constitutional strictures, the idiosyncrasies of an ethnically plural society also pose challenges emanating paradoxically from the most fundamental modern norm of “equality”. In these societies, the politics is dominated by the immanent feature of group comparison, leaving some groups “suffering” in that comparison, especially in the realm of economics. Equality of opportunity will not satisfy the “losing” group: they are looking to be guaranteed equality of outcome, while ignoring the personal and group attributes that are mediating factors.Such groups will attempt to subvert the norm of equality in the political realm by asserting greater legitimacy than other groups which should allow them greater access to the national patrimony. Today, we see this feature taking centre stage in Guyanese politics and, rather sadly but predictably, it is accompanied by rhetoric decrying other groups’ legitimacy to their own share of the national patrimony.While in all societies, especially in ex-colonies, there might be disabilities induced via past discrimination in some groups in terms of truly enjoying “equal opportunity” and therefore deserving of circumventing the equality imperative through “affirmative action” programmes, these must be crafted quite transparently so that backlashes are not precipitated from groups that will denounce “ethnic favouritism”.For instance, there are some who claim Indian Guyanese are not represented to their proportion of the population in the Army and Police Force. But the historical discrimination must be proven before rectificatory action can be taken.last_img

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