The ethnic trap

Stabroek News
February 8, 2000

The two main political parties, the People's Progressive Party and the People's National Congress, have since l957 drawn their support primarily from the two main ethnic groups. An analysis of the l96l results by the New World Associates in l964 had shown this quite clearly and they had predicted the l964 results, the first election under proportional representation, on the basis that the ethnic bloc votes of the PPP and the PNC would remain largely unchanged, the new communal parties (JP and GUMP) would fail to split the PPP vote to any appreciable extent and the UF would lose Indian and African votes to the PPP and PNC respectively.

New World predicted for l964 PPP 46.5%, PNC 42.5%,UF l0% and JPl%. The results were PPP 45.l4%, PNC 40.52%, UF l2.4l%, JP .56%, GUMP .5l%, PEP .09%, NLF .07%. On the assumptions that the Indian population had risen from 268,000 in the l960 census to 300,000 in l964 (a net increase after emigration of 3% per annum), that 9 of every 20 Indians were of voting age which was then 2l, that 90% had registered to vote and that 96% of the Indians registered had voted (that was the national percentage of actual voters registered) the Indians actually voting would have been ll6,000. The total votes for the PPP, JP and GUMP were ll2,000.

It was difficult to make similar comparisons for the African vote because of the large `mixed' vote. However, New World suggested that based on the figures the PNC had got a solid African vote and had shared the `mixed' vote with the UF. The Portuguese and Amerindian votes were attributed to the UF (Mr Stephen Campbell of the UF became minister of the new Ministry for Amerindian Affairs) and the small Chinese vote remained an enigma.

The ethnic voting patterns then established never changed. This was obfuscated by the results of the next four elections, l968, l973, l980 and l985, all of which were rigged and increasingly severely distorted. But the ethnic voting patterns were immediately re-established in l992, the next fair elections, in which the PNC did surprisingly well, given the long years of economic collapse and authoritarian rule, perhaps emphasising the strength of the ethnic voting patterns. With the virtual collapse of the United Force after Peter d'Aguiar withdrew, its votes in l992 and l997 were divided between the two main parties.

The persistence of ethnic voting patterns means two things, unless the demographics change substantially (and there has been some change but there is a desperate need for an accurate, up to date census) elections results are largely predictable and the two main parties remain trapped within an ethnic mould in which, whatever the actual disposition of the leaders, they end up responding to the fears and insecurities of their supporters. The voting patterns push politics into an ethnic prison.

Thus events which may have nothing to do with ethnicity in their inspiration but may spring from an economic programme are interpreted from an ethnic standpoint. If it affects party supporters the party has to respond, whether the programme is otherwise rational or not. There is no possibility for a longer or broader vision or give and take. The ethnic trap imposes its own dimensions on the social and political situation.

It is partly the unhealthy politics that this spawns that led the WPA to get started. Its failure is a measure of how hard it is to break these patterns. The perception of the ethnic trap has also led others over the years to look for solutions like coalitions, since the sixties. Nothing has ever worked, the party in power has always been more reluctant than the other to get involved. And now after 28 years of PNC rule some in the PPP see it as unfair that other solutions should be canvassed that would deprive them of full power.

The constitutional reform process has not thrown up a solution, as the three wise men of the Herdmanston Accord had clearly half hoped. Prosperity could of course greatly alleviate the situation, as it has in Trinidad, but that does not seem to be around the corner. The best one can hope for, therefore, is an efficient election, which gives no obvious reason for disruption, and some measure of economic development to ease the pressures of unemployment and poverty.