Super-rich parties, dirt-poor supporters

By Raffique Shah
July 19, 2009

Basdeo PandayWHEN political allies fall out, the mess that hits the fan could be worse than what would occur should a sewage-filled tanker explode in the midst of a $1,000-per-person, all-exclusive fete.

Highfalutin men and women would have faecal matter splattered all over their ultra-expensive party clothes, on their faces and their lobster salads. Those were my first thoughts when I heard Basdeo Panday accuse Jack Warner of failing to account for $30 million in donations to the UNC he (Jack) allegedly received during the 2007 general elections campaign.

The number was so mind-boggling that I did a triple-take: I switched from television station to station, trying to determine if what I heard was correct. It was. And it set me thinking. If Jack could raise $30 million, what did other candidates for the party cough up in order to be part of the UNC’s electoral slate? Surely Jack alone would not have been expected to raise funds for the campaign. If each of the 40 other candidates came up with, say, a paltry $1 million, then the UNC’s war chest would have had a minimum of $70 million. And given that all parties now have “financiers”, one can safely assume that Panday and his team went into the elections with around $100 million.

Since Panday’s political-Ponzi scheme failed to yield victory at the polls, hence no access to the multi-billion-dollar Treasury, one might ask how much the ruling PNM spent on its glitzy campaign for re-election. Bearing in mind oil, gas and other commodity prices sky-rocketed in 2007 and the ruling party had access to State funds, the PNM must have spent a considerable sum in advertising. Many stories have surfaced about party financiers doling out huge sums to the balisier bunch, but one would hardly hear anyone within its ranks spilling the beans the way Panday did.

Still, it’s safe to assume the PNM spent no less than the UNC did. And stupid me, I am flabbergasted because I remain stuck in an era long gone, a time when as a candidate I advertised my meetings on mornings (driving my car and speaking on the mike) and conducted them at nights, a virtual one-man-show. The mike was a permanent fixture on my vehicle during the entire campaign in 1976. When I spoke, it was not from any decorated stage. I often chose a mound of gravel or the tray of a van belonging to some supporter. I was the lone speaker at my constituency meetings. At the ULF’s centralised meetings, I would be among the three main speakers, the other two being George Weekes and Panday.

I have written this before, but in the context of the topic I have been addressing over the past few weeks, I need to make the point again. The ULF executive had taken a decision that we would accept contributions and donations from any supporter or well-wisher. But we put a cap of $2,000 on contributions. One executive member and candidate solicited funds and received a cheque for $5,000 from a top businessman. We had the party’s secretary write the donor a polite letter thanking him, but explaining our policy. We suggested he may want to write another cheque for $2,000. We heard nothing further about that. So strapped were we for campaign funds, we had Panday and Weekes co-sign for a loan of $10,000 from a bank in San Fernando. After the elections, we collectively repaid the loan.

The reason we rejected huge donations was to escape financiers “owning” the party. We knew then that the PNM received large sums from big businesses and other well-heeled individuals. We also knew that these generous donors were rewarded with contracts and other forms of “pay back” after elections. Guided by lofty principles some of us held firmly to in that post-1970 period, we wanted the ULF to break from the mould of a few wealthy financiers “owning” the party, should we win the elections. We did not win. But had our fortunes been otherwise, the ULF would have been beholden to no one other than the masses, the ordinary people who gave their services freely, and who deserved the betterment we had promised them during the campaign.

Readers can now understand why I am outraged that political parties would want $100 million “war chests” to contest elections. Sure, I am aware we live in different times. But it was the principle that mattered most to us, that of the party not being owned by a few wealthy persons, while the multitude that supported us, that put us in office, received nothing in return-except unfulfilled promises.

That is what obtains to this day, both in the PNM and the UNC. I can’t write about the COP since I know little of how that party raises its funds. But the mere thought of a handful of people “calling the shots” is revolting. It is why the masses, those who wave flags and do all the “bull work” for political parties need to take stock of themselves, to stop being used, abused and then cast aside.

Had Panday and Jack remained allies, UNC members might have never known their party was so cash-laden. Or that $30 million was missing from its coffers.

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