By Raffique Shah
February 12, 2019
Even as the crisis in neighbouring Venezuela remains volatile, with the threat of civil war looming large just beyond our horizon, politicians in Trinidad and Tobago are pressing ahead with preparations for their own political wars—local government elections due to be held later this year and a general election before the end of next year.
Elections in Trinidad and Tobago are driven by one core issue: when the People’s National Movement holds power, as it does now, how to remove it from office. Or when it’s out in the wilderness of opposition, how to keep it there. Nothing more, nothing less.
Maybe I am being cynical in my view of the electoral process in this country, reducing democracy T&T-style to the lowest common denominator, tribalism, race, call it what you will. But tell me that “ah lie” after you consider all the historical facts that are before us.
The 1956 general election that saw newcomer Dr Eric Williams and the PNM win a majority of seats, but still having to get the blessings of the Governor to form a government (because of the constitution), was the first and last time that the PNM was not the central issue in national elections.
Back then, there was Uriah Butler, the labour icon whose star was fading into oblivion. There was the incumbent chief minister Albert Gomes, who, struck by the spirit of nationalism that Dr Williams had made his mantra, was destined to be wiped off the electoral map. There was Bhadase Maraj, who forged the Indo-based People’s Democratic Party to defend and represent the interests of his tribe. And there were the last of the stalwart-independents—”Fargo” James in Tobago, Chanka Maharaj (narrowly beaten by PNM neophyte Kamaluddin Mohammed in Barataria) and Ajodhasingh (south-west), Victor Bryan (north-east) and Lionel Seukeran (Naparima).
Thereafter, most of the opposition forces joined hands and trained their guns on the PNM, not just because it was seen as a “Negro” party (“Afro” had yet to enter our lexicon), but because it quickly emerged as an organised and dominant party. Also, Eric’s arrogance grew in direct proportion to his seeming invincibility as, election after election, the PNM flogged the opposition parties, in some cases, literally to death.
Even after he removed the controversial voting machines for the 1976 election, the PNM beat the new opposition United Labour Front 24-10, with the two Tobago seats going to ANR Robinson’s DAC. It was Tobago’s first rejection of the PNM, and it stunned Williams.
Williams would die in office in 1981, never having tasted defeat as his immediate successor, George Chambers, did in 1986. With an economic recession reducing their oil-boom lifestyles to relative destitution, voters came out with a vengeance in 1986 under the united opposition banner of the National Alliance for Reconstruction, and dealt the PNM what everyone thought was a 33-3 death blow.
Turned out that, Phoenix-like, the PNM rose from the ashes to regain power five years later, and it was the NAR and some of its constituent parts (or parties) that died instead. Thereafter, power would change hands almost ritually every five years, as citizens tried one party or other, or an amalgamation of parties as was the case with the Kamla Persad-Bissessar-led People’s Partnership in 2010.
Always, in voting out the PNM, the electorate appeared to be looking for good governance, for the elimination of corruption that had reached epidemic proportions under the “old” PNM, although the newer versions were not without sin. But always, they discovered that those whom they had chosen to deliver them from evil were the Devil incarnates, smiling as they plundered the public purse. Nepotism ran rife. Racism reared its ugly head. The grass was not greener on the other side of the fence.
I have long questioned the validity of two-party (or multi-party) democracies as being the best form of government in the world. With few exceptions, mostly in advanced civilisations in Europe, voting for one party or other seems to cast electors on a never-ending treadmill, going nowhere, never getting to the nirvana they dream of. Always, the politicians and their fattened calves enjoy the good life while ordinary citizens seem destined to suffer hell, however bountiful the countries they reside in.
The starting pistol for the next elections has been fired. Race gone. Hundreds of aspirants to public office, many of them common crooks who want only to get their grubby hands on lucrative contracts and kickbacks, will face the selectors from the PNM and the UNC. There are some decent souls among them, those who really want to serve their constituents, the public.
But the levels of contamination in those houses of dubious repute are so high there is little chance of the innocent escaping untainted. I have heard Dr Rowley say, repeatedly, that under his captaincy, the PNM is clean when it comes to corruption. As leader, he may well believe that. But from some stories I’ve heard, while the head may be clean, the rot has seeped to other parts of the body politic. He needs to examine the horns of his crew—there may be traitors and thieves on board.
The UNC faces far more formidable challenges in trying to present a sanitised image to the public. Kamla does not need to worry about her core constituents. For them, she and her aides can do, and have done, no wrong. But the discerning electors who live in strategically-located communities that count in the critical marginal constituencies are a different breed.
They value decency way above charm and posturing. They can smell schmidt from the proverbial mile, and there are many stinkers on board her vessel.
There are other hopefuls who would likely contest one or both elections. Some of them are of nuisance value, others may merit comment. As I write this, news reports speak of one-time UNC/PP minister Vasant Bharath holding discussions with other ex-ministers from both main parties. That’s an interesting development that I may choose to address.