(The following is the full text of Khemraj Ramjattan’s feature presentation at the Congress of the People (COP)’s Convention in Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday, January 14)
Mr. Prakash Ramadhar, Leader of COP, Mr. Toney, Chairman, Mr. Nirad Tewarie, General Secretary
and all the other leaders, and all the members present at this Convention, thanks for inviting me here.
I am really impressed and must say that COP has a number of attributes about it which accords with the AFC in Guyana.
When I was invited by your General Secretary, I did ask him what do I have to speak on. He said to speak on something to do with whether third parties will be relevant in racially polarized societies. I immediately indicated that what happened in Guyana recently will make very good material for such an address.
What happened in Guyana recently makes it abundantly clear that indeed third parties have a relevance in race-based societies which previously was dominated by two generally tribal parties. I forthwith indicated that the third party in Guyana, the AFC, proved to be a positive force in that it was able to create a minority government, and to place itself to be that balance of power, and even to manage to wrest the Speakership of the National Assembly from the PPP/C, an important development.
Out of the actual
experiences of the last six years of being in the highest positions in the AFC, and my readings on this area, I want to emphatically pronounce that there is a tremendous relevance for a third party in a race-based politics as happen in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.
I have had a real busy week in Guyana negotiating the Speakership. But I did find time to articulate five reasons for such a relevance, which I now address.
1. Fundamental to good government is that people be enabled to participate in taking decisions which affect their lives; and sharing in the workings of government. This necessarily entails an improvement of communication by the existing government, and greater freedom of information available to our citizens. The result will see more voices being heard at national and local levels on issues which affect their lives. And we all know that drawing in more of the talents, of more of our people, more of the time always leads to better government.
A third party provides the platform to launch a greater participation in the decision making process, or at least to provide an additional opportunity to procure such a greater participation.
2. In our system of Government elections periodically is where participation of the people is situated. But this opportunity is infrequent and does not generally promote a deep debate of the national and local issues. The two existing parties will go on promising bread and circuses. Complex issues are traduced in strident sound bites and selective use of the facts. But the people deserve a better chance to think, and test the arguments.
A third party provides again a condition for and a platform for debating these complex issues. By bringing the people closer to the issues, will the people be brought closer to the Government. At the very least, the third party forces the other two parties through the competitive spirit to bring the issues to the people.
3. Guyana’s political history, as does Trinidad and Tobago’s, has as a characteristic about its two dominant parties, namely, an ethnic based politics. Indo-Guyanese traditionally supported the PPP of Jagan fame; and Afro-Guyanese have supported the PNC of Forbes Burnham fame. Support for these two parties has been based, too, as a result of demography, occupation, culture and religion. This analysis one may say, will resonate here in Trinidad.
But while such distinction can be made with reference to the generalised political behaviour of the two major racial blocks, it is not unusual to find Indo-Guyanese supporting PNC and Afro-Guyanese supporting the PPP. I have to be frank in asserting that there is no mutual exclusivity in terms of political behaviour. But in the same breath, I assert there is a preponderance of ethnic patterns in voting. This occurred in the recent elections in Guyana.
However, this race based politics is not good for Guyana. What is good for her is reason-based or issues-based politics. Thousands of Guyanese indicated to the founders of the AFC this truth. And it was the reason for our emergence in 2005.
Here then is where a third party can by its location in the polity, sustain an existence and relevance.
Although third parties usually have little chance of forming a government or winning the position of Head of Government, though this cannot be said to be impossible or improbable – COP being an example of that probability – they seem to have relevance in race-based societies in the sense that they tend to bridge the racial divide, thereby seeking to present a multiracial party.
So the race-based politics created by the two-party political system leads me to believe that a third party do have a much greater role to play in such a political system. We need third parties today, more than ever, if we are to bridge the racial divide in the hope of changing the political system in race-based societies.
This objective can work well in a scenario like Guyana where the ethnicities are all below 50 percent. Today we have approximately 42% East Indians; 32% Afro Guyanese; 15 % Mixed; and, 11 % Amerindians. Moreso, when the electoral system is proportional representation. With 10 % of the votes we managed seven Parliamentary seats. The unfairness of the first past the post system saw COP in the 2007 Trinidad and Tobago Elections not getting a single seat, although it got 23% of the votes! I could understand your Resolution for constitutional change to bring in PR. I can bet that the UNC and PNM will not support such a change. These older tribal parties always want to see the demolition of a third party which matters, like the COP and an AFC!
4. The literature especially from expert authors on the subject such as Horowitz, and the reality as I see it, seems to suggest that elections lead to the creation of an “ethnic congregating” in a Guyana and Trinidad context. Some call it an ethnic census.
5. As Horowitz analysed: “Citizens interact primarily with other members of their ethnic community, strengthening social solidarities. When elections are introduced, voting becomes an opportunity to affirm one’s affective ties to the community and to express group loyalties. As such, parties are unable to attract voters from other ethnic groups, and no swing voters exist. This means that the losing party cannot hope to increase its vote share in subsequent elections by enlarging its support base.”
And when elections are held, the numerically larger group (or coalition of groups) wins. And when this happens the winner extract the benefits of controlling the State for its own ethnic group and exclude other groups from State resources.
The losers cannot hope to attract additional voters in subsequent electoral rounds and facing prospects of permanent exclusion, the losers will have no reason to continue playing the electoral game. More likely than not, the loser will seek non-democratic means of gaining power which damages the chances of democracy’s survival. A majoritarian elected dictatorship and domination potentially can lead to breakdowns; this can then be countered by the elected dictatorship fighting back and the result being civil strife and bloodshed.
A third party is necessary to avoid such a result in a country with a race- based politics. I believe to a certain extent, the AFC’s performance in the last elections, which saw it as breaking the back of a PPP/C majority win, placated a potentially explosive situation which may have occurred had the PPP/C won a majority!
Further, the calling out by the AFC that the election results of the 2011 General Elections was free and fair based on its scrutineers’ accounts in the various ballot stations placated a potential explosive situation which saw some in APNU believing that there may have been rigging. Had there not been an AFC, I rather suspect the seeds for the recycling of a scenario of the 1997 spectacle may well have been manufactured.
6. Our generation and previous generations in Guyana, until the formation of the AFC, operated within the same kind of parties since Independence, namely, the PPP and PNC. Both having name changes to PPP/C or APNU will not change their inherent character. They both represent an older order of hierarchy and centralism and race-based politics. The PPP/C under a Jagdeo leadership over the last decade, worse still, created a favoured elite, which I recently described in a Presidential Debate at UG as a Sultanate.
A third party which seeks to break out from these strictures of hierarchy and centralism can be very relevant in a race-based politics dominated by two tribalistic existing parties. The AFC I will proudly assert has freed itself from these strictures during its last six years in existence. Its liberal democratic culture and equality of membership has broken free from a stultifying centralism and hierarchy which characterize the PPP/C and PNC.
As a matter of fact, I as Chairman have been criticized for not reigning in dissenting views, and for being too liberal to the extent of permitting an exhibition of indiscipline, among the rank and file. But if you want a thousand flowers to bloom, I know of no other way. And the way of maximalist leaders will never be the way!
In developing this sixth reason, I want to quote Robert Buddan who in a well done contribution entitled “My Generation Comes to Power” says: “Parties must become movements for long term empowerment and not electoral machines that exclude the young…
The new conception must bring in younger people by moving away from narrow forms of voting, lobbying and law-making to more direct forms of democratic participation; from top-down party leadership to grass-roots movements; from materialist issues that give primacy to patronage to ecological, gender and ethnic concern.
But the younger generation must invent their own politics and initiate their own transformation. Their politics must:
• Be centred on citizenship as a life-fulfilling project.
• Regard contribution to public life as the highest goal of citizenship.
• Regard the ultimate goal as the transformation of politics and society itself.
• Build an ethic of care, giving and helping.
• Mobilize people through decentralized decision-making structures and community-based politics.
• Replace the egotism of politics with humility in politics.
Buddan was talking about parties in general. But the point he makes is especially significant for third parties here in Trinidad and in Guyana. I want to add that third forces in such a landscape will do well and may even emerge as first choices if they pursue:
A) A national vision of healing and reconciliation with the end of embracing all;
B) Policies which are anchored in fundamental human rights;
C) Fairness among ethnic groups with special attention being paid to what is being called recently “horizontal equality”;
D) The protection of minorities, including the indigenous peoples and women.
To you the leaders and members of COP, the emancipation from race-based politics by a third party will require a very dedicated, principled leadership of that third party. It is quick to take a detour off this difficult road or to even abandon the journey altogether. Simply because it is so difficult!
So I ask that leaders in third parties as in COP and AFC, stay the course. As leaders we will have to live the examined life; and to show that we are examples who transcend ethnic gravitations. We must be fearless in speaking out on issues; and, not be compromised by personalities and circumstances.
A race-based politics has its origins in our homes, and the various stereotypes we create there about the other. We must be the first to condemn that. We must ensure a new curriculum in the school system which will foster an appreciation or a greater appreciation of the various ethnicities and races so that our next generation can be tolerant of the other. So that reason-based and issue-based politics become prevalent.
And this is my final message to both leaders and members present: We have to eradicate the slur and slight which states that when an East Indian breaks rank with his Indo-based party that he is a nemakharam; and, similarly, a traitor, when an Afro breaks rank from his Afro-based party.
Thank you for granting me this opportunity to address you. It was an honour and privilege.
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