By Raffique Shah
July 31, 2023
The two main political parties in Trinidad and Tobago are taking the local government election, scheduled for two weeks tomorrow, very seriously. I expected the opposition United National Congress to maintain its momentum, which it has kept at a steady pace since it lost the 2015 general election, to keep the tempo going since it gained a few seats and the popular votes for its unrelenting pressure on the ruling People’s National Movement.
But the PNM has gone into high-gear campaigning, and that has surprised me. Sure, the party has to promote its local government reform programme, which the UNC will not endorse or pursue-unless it wins the next general election and finds it convenient to blame the PNM for having introduced and in instances passed and proclaimed legislation pertaining to property tax procurement etc. Knowing the UNC leadership as we do, we should not be surprised by such about-faced that has happened in the past.
Outside of the property tax which the PNM sees as a revenue gathering instrument for the local government body which the UNC might continue to oppose until it discovers surreptitious ways of reintroducing it, should it return to power. Much like after their prolific ‘Do So’ campaign slogan, when Larry Howai was finance minister he announced they will gradually reinstate the said property tax. Nobody with experience in politics finds such about-face by politicians as anything strange.
From my perspective, Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley stands to lose most should things go south and he ends up conceding even more votes to the UNC. With a general election just over a year away, he cannot afford to be seen as a potential loser. Kamla Persad-Bissessar has lost over ten elections in her career but that has done nothing to turn her supporters away from her. In her core constituency, and in this case regional corporations that the UNC controls totally she can lose a hundred times and never lose face among her diehard supporters. Dr. Rowley in contrast is expected by his supporters to show that he has what it takes to win, however small the margins may be. The licks the PNM got in the most recent Tobago House of Assembly election did not affect him negatively as it might have had the Watson Duke co-led winning party, PDP, not imploded. That disaster saved Dr. Rowley from possibly being booted out as leader of the PNM. The balisier party does not suffer losers- witness Geroge Chambers and Patrick Manning. While Dr. Rowley looks very fit and able to continue, he and the party stalwarts must be grooming new leaders for a vacancy that will arise, for their sake later rather than sooner.
In fact that may be the only benefit the upcoming local election brings to the senior politicians. The UNC for example must maintain its momentum, continue the trend of increasing its hold on the popular vote. It could also serve the leader best to wrest a few of the new boroughs from the PNM. She should be aware that adding Gary Griffith and Jack Warner to her fold is really adding nothing. Gary may be flashy and impressive but he brings to the election table a handful of the middle to upper class voters who may have been PNM yesterday and when ‘licks’ share they run back to the PNM. And, Jack… well except for money, I don’t know what else he brings, the money itself may be secreted in countries that he cannot enter. Indeed, grasping at Jack in what might surely be her sunset years in politics, may subtract from her much of the image of a queen in waiting that took many years to build.
Other than fundamental structural changes in reformed local governance that the new law should have brought but will hardly so do because of the law of politics that will make it impossible for the government to have its way, the election may well be the last hurrah for many of the veterans.
To think that Dr. Rowley has worked hard to make it a new beginning only to see it crash into the debris that has become the norm for Trinidad-style gutter and tribal politics will be a tragedy. There are few young politicians in both main parties and the mainstream politics who have the guts to pick up the pieces, or maybe even build something completely new that will make this country the paradise we old patriots have dreamt of for all our lives.
But one never knows. For all the foreboding these tumultuous years we have been through, we may yet see a new dawn that will put Trinidad and Tobago on the right path where it belongs. Let us pray, my people.