Election an illusion of power

By Raffique Shah
July 01, 2020

Raffique ShahIt’s difficult to get a good grasp of what’s happening on the ground regarding the general election, which will be held in the next three months. It seems that Covid-19, the virus that has impacted the world like nothing else in history, and fundamentally changed the way we live to the extent that we have coined virtually a new lexicon to comprehend its effects, said virus has relegated the election to a side-show, almost a non-event.

But that might be a superficial misunderstanding of the post-Covid new normal in politics. Take, for example, the suddenness and ferocity with which the “Black Lives Matter” movement erupted, and how it exploded to envelop the world in a few short weeks. Countries that do not have black people saw white people, and people of other pigmentations, pour onto their streets bearing “Black Lives Matter” banners and placards, seemingly colour-blind, united in their quest for justice for humankind of whatever hue.

That truly global mass-movement that touched almost every country the way Covid-19 is doing, perhaps signals how new politics, the way nations determine who or what will lead them, what issues will be on the agenda, even how the leaders conduct foreign affairs, will be determined by the masses, quite literally. What pops out from my cranial hard-drive as I write is CLR James’s ‘Every Cook Can Govern’, a discourse on the city states of ancient Greece (it’s available for free online), how democracy was allowed close to free rein in that society.

Such freedoms to allow every voice to be heard, and more importantly listened to, may not be practical in the modern world where metropolises hosting millions of residents have long been the norm. But wait: technologies like video-conferencing have also been around for some time, and evolving daily, allowing for such inclusiveness.

I am making some far-fetched assumptions, I realise, in addressing a routine general election in Trinidad and Tobago, in which the voting populace elect 41 constituency representatives, and a prime minister, a process that remains mired in tribal instincts that are more ancient than the city states of Greece. If we can’t get past having loyalties based on colour of skin, texture of hair, people’s religions, what hope is there that we can re-invent true democracy and show the world that we are capable of more than just cornering Covid-19 and keeping the killer virus at bay?

So what does the electoral landscape look like mere weeks before polling day? Difficult question to answer. But fool that I am, I rush in where wise men never go. If nothing dramatic happens between now and polling day, the battle will be between the incumbent People’s National Movement and the opposition United National Congress. I note a number of other parties that are presenting themselves as alternatives to the PNM and the UNC. But barring a political earthquake of cataclysmic proportions, they will all fail to dislodge incumbents on both sides of the aisle.

The results will not be as close as many pundits are predicting. The current configuration of 23 seats to the PNM and 18 to the UNC is as close as it will get, with the winner perhaps increasing that majority by one or two seats. Bear in mind that this election will be staged in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic that has instilled fear among the population. People tend to stick with what they know, what they feel comfortable with, in times of crisis.

Each party’s base, its core supporters, will hardly shift loyalties at such a critical time. Voters who will have lost confidence in their party or its leader for whatever reason, will have done so long before the pandemic struck. The only factor that could cause a core supporter to jump ship now is some disastrous statement or display of gross irresponsibility by senior officers of the party.

The fewer-than-25,000 informed voters who bear no allegiance to either main party, but who follow the dictates of their consciences, and who ultimately determine which party forms the government because they are strategically deployed in five or six so-called marginal constituencies, will once more find themselves in that role. They, not the masses, will decide who wins.

Which is a hell-of-a-thing, when you think of it. What it tells us is that democracy, which, Presbyterian minister, Reverend Roy Nehall, described many years ago as being “caricatured by five minutes spent in a polling booth once every five years”, can be seriously flawed. It hardly delivers government of the people, far less by the people. But it gives us an illusion of power, especially when the electorate is united against a leader who is consumed by hubris, and they collectively kick him or her into oblivion.

Watch what happens to the big bully in the White House…