The vulnerabilities of democracy

Posted on | april 1, 2011 | 1 Comment

This essay hypothesizes that democracy is confounded on a peculiar principle: ‘once democracy is destroyed it never fully recovers’. This rather austere and irreversible principle is rooted in the empirics, more precise, on the impact of conflict and violence on society. This essay postulates that conflict hinges on three specific criteria, rather, the existence of three types of conflict that in fact determine the vulnerability of the state and its institutions depending on the perceived proclivity to turn into violence:

  • Low intensity conflict, with limited to moderate probability for violence;
  • Moderate intensity conflict, moderate to high probability for violence;
  • High intensity conflict, with very high probability for violence.

There is a linear correlation between the system’s proclivity to absorb and deal with divergent/opposing opinions and oppositions; But I also find an inverse correlation between the strength of the party-systems and institutional effectiveness. Both correlates are intertwining and juxtaposing, but in short tell us something about the system and its institutions.

To make the aforementioned hypothesis less abstract and easier to comprehend, this essay plans to focus on inter-ethnic conflict, a type of conflict that premises on how different ethnic groups living in a specific territory, interact. Inter-ethnic conflict is a very interesting object of research because of its proclivity to blind-side its observers, as it enshrouds other social cleavages of equal or sometimes greater importance.

Also, inter-ethnic conflict has the propensity to hold the political system for ransom, as it divides and polarizes, transforming the system into a bulwark of co-optation. This essay aims to canvas the phenomenon of inter-ethnic conflict, by comparing two societies, with a more or less similar ethnic make-up, Suriname and Guyana, but where conflict developed in opposite directions.

In Guyana the conflict gave rise to political authoritarianism, as Forbes Burnham positioned himself, aided by the CIA, at the vortex of power; in Suriname, the two largest ethnic categories, Creoles and Hindustani (East Indians) forged political co-optation under the banner of political fraternization or verbroedering (Dutch) (Adama 2006).

As I mentioned earlier, the presence of race, or ethnicity has the tendency to blindside its observers; Donald Horowitz (1985) attenuates this fallacy to the fact that scholars lack the academic training to deal with the atavistic aspects of this specific type of violence.

The Concept of ‘Ethnicity’ and Political Parties: Suriname and Guyana
Indeed, inter-ethnic conflict harbors elements of political science, sociology, anthropology, economy and psychology. Some schools of social sciences want to push the conception of ethnicity into the spheres of biology, viewing ethnicity from genetic perspective, referring to ethnicity as a group of people sharing a common gene-pool. Is the biological approach correct, given the fact that kin is a symbolic conception, latching on culture and common bond? But on the other hand, what is the meaning of kin?

There are great pitfalls in using inter-disciplinary approach to explain the role and the place of ethnicity in society. In Suriname for example, scholarship has failed to take research of ethno-politics beyond the description of main protagonists, heavily doused with allegories about racial harmony and abrasa (embrace) [see for example: Dew 1978; Breeveld 2000; St Hilaire 2001 et al.]. Premdas (1995) in the case of Guyana, managed to overcome this pitfall, but also stumbled when trying to explain certain aspects of inter-ethnic relations from Marxist perspective. The viewpoint on ethnic relations in Guyana is negative, based on scant overview of the empirics that ethnic relations are/were innately fraught and bitter, divisive and disintegrative. In Suriname ethnicity is typically viewed from a more positive perspective, ascribing to a certain logic that in fact fools its observers, giving rise to false pretexts and ideas of a racially tolerant society.

One of the major problems of the so called ascription methodology used by social scientist writing on transitional and developing societies such as Suriname and Guyana is, in the first place, its failure to dissolve the causal relationship between historical complexities and the contemporary, and in second place, its consistent quest to ‘match’ assumptions with models that perhaps will take shape in the future (Giddens 1971, p.246; Larrain 1989). For example Dew (1978; p. 199) persisted to argue that Surinamese style consensus equates the theoretical conception of ‘verzuiling’ as positioned by Lijphart (1968), despite argumentation to the contrary by Lijphart (1977) himself, followed by Breeveld (2000) citing Derveld.

But how is ethnicity confounded in politics? The simplest explanation on the role of ethnicity in politics, is that politics typically reasons from ‘we -against-them’ antimonies, antimonies that theorize the practice to use race as tool for the building of political frontiers (Adama 2006, 2008).
Norval (2000, p. 225) eloquently argues:

‘the general logic of individuation can and ought to be distinguished from the formation of political frontiers and the constitution of antagonistic forms of identity’.

Norval (ibid.) actually emphasizes the manner in which political frontiers are used to create what she identifies as ‘imagined identities’, or ‘we-against-them alliances’ that, in turn form the basis for political legitimization (see also: Reilly 2003, p.3). Political science recognizes in fact that political contestation only works through the kindling of conflicting interests, and views frontier formation therefore as a ubiquitous phenomenon, present in every political arena in every society (Simmel 1955; Lipset & Rokkan 1967, p. 94).

When do existing antagonisms become polarizing and conflicting and in some cases violent? When are antagonisms polarizing, divisive and disintegrative to the extent that they invoke feelings of repulsion and hatred, henceforth violence? Political sociologists exemplified by Rokkan (1966) and Sartori (1968) argue that political parties merely reflect the political expressions of underlying social cleavages. Extrapolating, parties reflect the public will and provide a crucial linkage between citizenry and the state, henceforth, parties make conflicting interests more explicit (Lipset&Rokkan 1967, p. 92; Mair 1990, p.2). The problem is that aforementioned theories do not fit the model of the ethnically divided society in the throes of transition, change and transformation.

Transitional societies typically deal with different social, political and historical complexities, complexities that need a different scholarly approach to discern how ethnic conflict is expressed politically. As Norval (2000, p.9) points out, identity is not fixed in a differential system, but contested by forces which stand outside the establishment, or at the very limit of the political spectrum. Horowitz (1985) and Reilly (2003 p. 3) write that aspiring politicians in ethnically divided societies have a strong incentive to mobilize along ethnic/ racial lines, driving contestation to the extremes (see also: Chandra 2004). Rival parties tend to respond in kind, triggering a back and forth of responses to outbid the rival, a pattern of communication that pushes the parties to the fringes of the political continuum, thus limiting possibilities for dialogue and equilibration of the political arena (Reilly 2003, p. 3; Chandra 2004 ).

Harking back to our two models, to argue that in Guyana politicization occurred outside the realm of the earlier mentioned antimonies, along the lines of ideology (Both Burnham and Jaggan were socialists). In Suriname however, politicization occurred strictly along the lines of race. Prior to enfranchising, both societies boasted a strong cleavage structure bases: Surinamese society was vertically (race) and horizontally (religion, geography, class (caste) culture) divided, resembling a loosely constructed raster; in Guyana society was also vertically (race) and horizontally structured (religion, class (caste), culture). The manner in which these divides panned out during the process of decolonization was closely linked to the socio-political realities of the motherland, The Netherlands and conversely, England.

The verzuilde society in the Netherlands came to be to prevent an irreversible split of the country in the early twentieth century. Adroit leadership and self-denying prophesy became buzz words as governments successfully meandered through social and religious fault-lines. Ample research of ethnic relations in Suriname between 1900 -1945 teaches a divided, unevenly dispersed landscape, with limited overarching contact and only slight racial animosity (Adama 2006). Why was Suriname modelled according to Dutch society? Similar proclivities determined Guyana’s social, political and institutional development, but along Anglo-Saxon model of social classes (upper class and lower class; Tories and Labor). Problematic in the case of Guyana was that existing social classes attenuated to the sharp division between white and ‘the rest’ Blacks, East Indians and American Indian.

Both societies were in the process of transition, and organizing these societies according to Western principles, rules and standards was an aberration, at best! As Horowitz (1985, p.13) puts it

In divided societies, ethnic conflict is at the center of politics.. (and)… virtually all political events have ethnic consequences’.

Horowitz in fact argues that ethnic conflict permeates all aspects of society, an argumentation that undercuts the notion to define ethnic conflict in terms of ‘oppression’ (Gibson 2006), or to develop a theory that in fact advocates behaviour modification of ethnic leaders (Lijphart 1977).

My argumention that political leaders have a stake in using ethno- geographical realities to set up a support market, to get the power, also aims to redirect discussion in the direction of what actually constitutes ethnic politics, which is a combination of the subjective; symbols, notions, ideas, values and norms, and the objective; power, seeking of support to establish and legitimize political organization.

Suriname and Guyana, Enfranchising and the end of Democracy?
The wave of democratization ushered in new ideas on how ethnically divided societies should be governed. In Suriname, The Dutch were adamant on parliamentary representation for all ethnic categories, a philosophy that encompassed the coastal districts, omitting Marrons and American Indians ethnic categories. The introduction of suffrage, gave rise to what I identified as verbroedering, a type of ethnic politics that pushed parties to the extremes, polarizing and dividing society, making the emergence of broad-based political parties with a moderate agenda virtually impossible.

In Guyana, suffrage pushed the country almost immediately in an acrimonious and bitter fight between the main protagonists, Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham. I attribute this rivalry and ensuing ethnic conflict to international policy of containment. Indeed Mr Jagan was a socialist, with communist sympathies but so was in fact Mr Burnham. The difference between both gentlemen was that Mr Burnham proved to be a better strategist, preaching a message of socialism while at the same time, appeasing and shushing The USA and the British, accepting donations and aid.

As I mentioned before ethnic conflict has the tendency to enshroud key issues concerning the socio-political and economic:

  1. In both societies the disappearance of a middle class with ample proclivity to introduce and support broad-based, centripetal political organization, in fact helped to perpetuate centrifugal tendencies: apanjaht, (vote for your own kind), outbidding and ethnic head-count (Premdas 1995; Chandra 2004; Adama 2006, 2008);
  2. Ethnic parties moreover, have the perverse tendency to mimic mass political movements, while in reality being weak, opaque, inclusive and oligarchic political entities that devote little time to the strengthening of institutions or the body politic.
  3. In In Guyana, high intensity ethnic violence deeply divided and polarized society, giving rise to an authoritarian regime that terrorized and impoverished its citizens; In Suriname low intensity ethnic conflict fostered a political space where the two largest ethnic categories collided, excluding other ethnic categories from politics as well as citizens that refused to conform to what they called ‘hokjesgeest’.
  4. The success of ethnic politics measured in terms of its proclivity to establish clientele networks in fact, erodes existing institutions. The presence of the Netherlands cloaked said inertia, but after 1975, the situation deteriorated, climaxing in 1980, when the military took over government. In Guyana, the situation compared to pre-independent Suriname seemed worse as Burnham continued to demolish Guyanese infrastructure and institutions. After Burnham’s death, Cheddi Jaggan’s PPP came to power, a reality that did not make ethnic tension disappear.

The effects of ethnic conflict are devastating; low intensity conflict shows its ugly face later in the process, while the effects of high intensity ethnic conflict are more immediate. The long-term effects of inter-ethnic conflict are however equally profound. Conflict it seems hampers possibilities for economic growth, and impedes social and biological well-being. I did not address the effects of memory and individual feelings of repulsion and hatred, but they oftentimes show their ugly faces, rekindled by disgruntled citizens and politicians alike. It seems that society never recovers from this type of conflict, escalation of ethnic conflict seems to always in the backdrop. In Suriname, feelings of resentment and repulsion shift, rise and fall, depending on the public mood and political climate.

This essay also demonstrates that ethnicity is neither biological nor genetic. Ethnicity is psychological, its reverberation social, its implementation political, its outcome economical, a position that mirrors the earlier mentioned primordialist –instrumentalist antimonies. This essay commenced by positing that destruction of democracy is an irreversible process. The austerity of this postulate was not rooted in the inner-workings of conflict, but latched on the theorizing by Simmel (1955) that conflict has the uncanny ability to forge unity. Inter-ethnic conflict is the ‘exception to the rule’ as both examples demonstrate.

The recommendation that governments should reform institutions and stimulate economic development are relevant and pivotal but are contingent on adroit leadership. Pivotal is also the emergence of a new political class apt to break ethnic barriers, to deal with pressing social and economic issues.

Today Guyana and Suriname are still struggling with ethnicity and race. The omnipresence of race, its incipience, hampers social and economic development. In both Guyana and Suriname, the absence of credible broad based political alternatives hampers politicization, henceforth democracy. The absence of said political parties is however profound: After the last elections in 2010, the Surinamese democracy again entered the dangerpoint as udemocratic and disloyal forces took hold of government. In Guyana, alternation of parties taking office is hardly probable under the current electoral system, a fact that profoundly impacts democracy.


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AUTHOR: Natascha Adama
E-MAIL: nataliapestova23 [@]


One Response to “The vulnerabilities of democracy”

  1. jon kofas
    april 1st, 2011 @ 11:32

    Congratulations on an excellent essay!

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