By Raffique Shah
July 01, 2019
I feel a sense of déjà vu, of having been there, seen that, whenever some self-proclaimed leader or obscure group announces the formation of a new political party—which seems to be a frequent occurrence, with three major elections looming large on the horizon. While this is merely democracy at work, citizens exercising their right to run for political office, too many fools are rushing into a maelstrom that wise men avoid like the proverbial plague.
Over the past two weeks, on morning television talk-shows, I saw a young man whose face is vaguely familiar, enthusiastically reveal that he had registered a political party, and explain that he was rising to the challenge for young people to get involved in politics and governance.
Then there was a motley threesome—a young man, a mature woman and an older man—whose claim to fame was to have staged a rowdy protest against Government’s decision to grant temporary immigrant status to approximately 15,000 Venezuelans. This group seemed to be confused about everything except their anti-PNM stance. They certainly had me confused about what they stood for.
Before them, Basdeo Panday’s daughter, who no doubt sees herself as the heiress to the Panday political dynasty, real or imagined, launched a party, the name of which I do not recall. It seems to me that she has given up on securing what she believes to be her inheritance in the United National Congress in which her father believes he has proprietary interest. So she will lead her own party, more than likely into the general election of 2020.
Vasant Bharath and Louis Lee Sing, two seasoned campaigners, are holding a series of meetings across the country, seeking to promote Bharath as the most suitable person to lead the country at this time. They will necessarily need to form a party to pursue this goal since no other party will facilitate his aspirations.
Already in the fray are the David Abdulah-led Movement for Social Justice; blogger and social activist Phillip Alexander’s People’s Empowerment Party; an alliance of three Tobago-based parties led by Christlyn Moore, Ashworth Jack and Hochoy Charles, respectively, under the theme “One Voice”; Watson Duke’s Progressive Democratic Party, which actually holds two seats in the Tobago House of Assembly; the sugar workers union party, the National Solidarity Assembly led by Nirvan Maharaj, president of the union; Jack Warner’s Independent Liberal Party; and the once powerful third force, the Congress of the People, which is battling to regain some traction.
I have identified 11 registered political parties or parties-in-the-making that are likely to challenge the UNC and the PNM in three elections due to be held over the next two years—the local government elections (2019), general election (2020) and THA election (2021). I am sure I’ve omitted the names of some parties that elude me as I write, for which they will roundly cuss me.
I am dizzy just thinking of the confusion that will reign as the combatants engage in battle—the loudspeakers blaring day-into-night for months, the posters that will plaster walls and utility poles, non-stop advertising in the print and electronic media, and no-holds-barred wars of words, misinformation, racial remarks and worse in the jungle that is misnamed “the social media”.
Do these parties have any chance of impacting the outcome of the elections? Based on my personal experience and my assessment as someone who has closely monitored elections in this country from as far back as 1971, I think most of them are of nuisance value. I do not enjoy dismissing people’s aspirations to seeking political office so casually. But as I said at the beginning of this commentary, I’ve been there, seen that.
In 1976, the only occasion on which I was involved in a general election, and very reluctantly offered myself as a candidate, eleven parties contested. I ran for the Siparia constituency for the United Labour Front and faced seven opponents. I won, of course, one of ten members of the ULF which would go on to form the official opposition, along with Ray Robinson and Winston Murray whose DAC, for the first time since 1961, wrested the two Tobago seats from the PNM.
The ULF was no backroom party conceived by disgruntled persons whose prime motivation was hatred for the PNM. Coming out of the events of 1970, its leadership and frontline advocates could best be described as radicals who had a vision for transforming the politics, governance and economy of the country. It was what I have always maintained the only organically-interracial party, in the sense that everyone—Afro, Indo, mixed and white—had earned his place based on his input. John Humphrey, the most prominent white, had laboured like an indenture to advance its goals. George Weekes, Joe Young, Panday and I, ably assisted by a phalanx of energetic activists who ranged from semi-literate workers and farmers to university students and lecturers, had worked like horses, mainly in the sugar and industrial south, but also in the East-West corridor, to educate and mobilise grassroots supporters between 1973-1976.
Well before the election date was proclaimed (September), the ULF had clearly displaced the DLP, the parliamentary opposition up to 1966, in the traditional opposition constituencies. But we knew we could not beat the PNM unless we struck an alliance with two other legitimate forces, Robinson’s DAC and Lloyd Best’s Tapia. These two rejected our advances. So, eleven parties contested the election.
I had volunteered to do battle in Siparia because the leaders of the split-DLP, Vernon Jamadar and Alloy Lequay, had chosen to run there. The DAC fielded the formidable Dr Martin Sampath, and the PNM its elections officer, Rennie Matthews. Before the night was over, six of eight candidates lost their deposits. I won with 6,601 votes; Matthews was second with 2,380; two others crossed 300, and rejected votes (165) exceeded the votes cast for three other losers.
Nationally, the PNM won 24 of 36 seats with 53.5 percent of votes cast; the ULF won 10 with 28.8 percent; the DAC managed two with 8.1 percent, Tapia none with 3.8 percent, and six parties polled less than one percent. The deleterious effects of fragmentation would repeat itself in 1981 when 12 parties contested and the PNM triumphed again. It would change only in 1986 when the NAR swept the PNM almost off the political map, winning 33 of 36 seats with 66 percent of votes cast.
Only two other parties contested: Makandal Daaga’s NJAC (1.5 percent) and Michael Als’s PPM (0.14 percent). Incidentally, Wade Mark was a candidate for the latter, running in Laventille. He actually polled 72 votes.