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Who makes a dictator?

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General elections in Trinidad and Tobago are just over three weeks away. As is customary in most Caribbean countries, T&T is “hot” with political debate and discussion. Much of it focuses on whether the Opposition coalition which has emerged can, first of all, defeat the governing PNM on May 24, and even more important for the country, whether it can stay together post-elections.{{more}} The coalition, loosely called the People’s Partnership, after a formal agreement signed publicly, brings together the main opposition United National Congress (UNC) led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, its offshoot Congress of the People (COP), led by Winston Dookeran, three smaller parties – the Movement for Social Justice of former trade union leader Errol McLeod, the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP), with Ashworth Jack at the helm, and the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) headed by veteran black nationalist Makandaal Daaga (a.k.a Geeddes Granger)- along with a smattering of union leaders and social activists.

It is not the first election in which the PNM, T&T’s oldest political party, which has been in office for 43 of its 54 years in existence, has had to face a coalition. At the end of the fifties, a coalition of the predominantly Indo-Trinidadian DLP and business elements won local government elections, causing T&T’s and the PNM’s founding father, the late Dr. Eric Williams, to utter his now famous “Massa day done”, propelling him to victory in the 1961 general elections. A labour-based coalition, led by ousted UNC leader Basdeo Panday, emerged out of the social unrest of the early seventies, and Panday himself succeeded in heading a coalition government with ANR Robinson in the eighties.

These have arisen in the past principally because of the dangerous combination of race and politics in Trinbagonian society, with the added challenge of catering to the needs of the minority population in Tobago, which while primarily of African descent, had long had its interests ignored by the mainland-focused PNM. Interestingly, University lecturer Dr. Bishnu Ragoonauth, has pointed out that in all this discussion about the fragility of coalition governments, on the three occasions on which elections have had to be held prematurely in T&T, in 1995 and 2010 under the PNM, led by its current leader, Patrick Manning, and in 2001 under Panday, monolithic one-party governments were in office. Further, he notes that the Panday-led coalition government actually lasted two full terms. Noted journalist Tony Fraser also points to coalitions in Suriname and Fiji as practical solutions to politics in a multi-ethnic society, with parties built along racial lines. So much for the PNM argument that all coalitions are inherently unstable and can’t work!

What is intriguing is the argument for the building of the coalition and the need for a People’s Partnership. The coalition forces claim that they are responding to a general perception in Trinbagonian society that Patrick Manning is high-handed and is subjecting the country to one-man rule. (That perception is also held in some quarters outside T&T). Governance, then, is for the Opposition a key issue, THE ISSUE in fact. This is how UNC leader and prospective Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar put it most graphically:

“Arrogance, hubris (excessive pride), spite, corruption, incompetence, malfeasance and vindictiveness have set in the leadership ……….. Something is wrong with Mr. Manning. It is as though some kind of lunacy has taken hold of him…”

The smaller political parties and union leadership elements in the coalition, which save for Dookeran’s COP, are mainly of African descent, the traditional PNM base, have gone further. They have justified their decision to join the coalition on the need to oppose what they call the “Manning dictatorship.” They openly accuse manning of being a dictator and of trying “to destroy the labour movement”. The People’s Partnership, then, in their view, is a classical anti-dictatorial alliance, a coalition to save/restore democracy in T&T.

There is little doubt that Manning’s aloof leadership style, his very air and mannerisms, not to talk of some idiosyncrasies, have left the impression that he regards himself as perhaps on another plane. Yet the question must be answered, ‘Is Manning a dictator?’ Indeed, one can go further and ask, how can dictators emerge in a democratic Parliamentary system? Even more relevant, what is the role of the people in the making of a dictator? Has Manning been able to subvert the constitutional provisions of his country and entrench his personal rule? Is democracy under threat or “dead” in Trinbagonian society? Are other Caribbean societies in such peril?

More questions than can be answered here, so let us continue the discussion in my next column.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.