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Electoral implications

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In today’s globalised world, elections in any country are followed by hundreds of millions, in far reaches beyond the localised settings, such is the power of the media and modern technology. More people than ever are able to follow polls in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan or Afghanistan, even if we can’t pronounce the names of their leaders. We now are able to listen to Presidential debates in the USA and now, those among the Prime Ministerial candidates in Britain as well.{{more}} As for the Caribbean, nearly every election now gets almost blow-by-blow coverage on radio.

The next scheduled poll in one of our neighbouring countries is the one in Trinidad and Tobago, on May 24th, called two years early by Prime Minister Patrick Manning. The T and T elections are evoking great regional interest. This is not surprising for not only is oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago one of the dominant economies in the region, but its historical links to the Eastern Caribbean mean that there are many social connections as well. In more recent times too, the Manning government has been at the centre of a number of regional initiatives involving the Eastern Caribbean, including a proposed political union with Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The twin-island state has also been a source of financial support for Eastern Caribbean countries, and is very much involved with regional transportation linkages, LIAT and the takeover of Air Jamaica being prominent.

For more than half of century, politics in T and T has been dominated by the race factor, given the divide between the two largest ethnic groups, African and Indian. Politicians have played the race card to achieve their own ends and the two major parties, the perennial and now governing PNM, and the opposition UNC, successor to the Indian-led DLP of the fifties and sixties, have take turns in governing, with the PNM by far the dominant force.

It was not until 1986 that the PNM fortress was first breached, with a coalition between ANR Robinson, a former PNMite himself, and the guru of Indian politics, Basdeo Panday. Though that coalition fell apart, Panday was able to return as Prime Minister some years later only for internal wrangling to bring down his administration, split the Indian vote and open the way for the return of Manning and the PNM since December 2001. Fuelled by oil and gas revenue, Trinidad and Tobago has not experienced the financial resource constraints of its neighbours but for one reason or another, has not been able to match social development with its huge economic resources.

Manning came to power on a platform of anti-corruption, pledging to clean up the mess which his country was tainted under Panday. Ironically, that charge of corruption has gone full circle and it is the PNM which now must defend such charges. Indeed it is felt that the early poll is an attempt to head off greater public focus on corruption charges against the PNM government, the Opposition having filed a no-confidence motion in Parliament. There have been developments on the Opposition side too which make for even greater public interest in the elections. The ageing Basdeo Panday has been finally shunted aside by the UNC, that party opting for female barrister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Co-incidentally Persad-Bissessar was once considered a successor to Panday in the UNC before the wily ‘Bas’ shafted her for an arrangement with football kingpin Austin ‘Jack’ Warner, Vice-president of FIFA. As politics would have it, ‘Jack’ and ‘Bas’ themselves later had differences and Warner has switched allegiances to Persad-Bissessar, being now Chairman of the UNC. This has so angered Panday that not only is he publicly accusing Warner of PNM-like corruption, but he is threatening to contest the election as an Independent, against the very same ‘Jack’ Warner.

In spite of these displays of pique by Panday, the veteran politician has been forced to give his blessing to a new coalition that has sprung up around the UNC. On Wednesday night of this week, a number of political forces publicly signed what they called the People’s Partnership Document, indicating a formal coalition of forces to oust the PNM in the upcoming elections. Though the UNC is the major force and UNC-offshoot, the Congress of the People (COP) headed by former Panday Deputy, Winston Dookeran, is the other major known political force, this coalition reaches out to the Afro-Trinidadian community.

From that community, another political veteran, Makandaal Daaga, of NJAC (which spearheaded the famous Black Power rebellion of 1970), and a number of trade union leaders of African descent, including Errol Mcleod, retired President of the powerful Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU), as well as Warner, are prominent in the coalition. Cementing both the appearance of national and racial unity is the presence of Ashworth Jack, leader of the Tobago Organization of the People.

The coalition has avoided public speculation on any leadership issue by making it clear that Persad-Bissessar will be Prime Minister, should the grouping succeed at the polls and has put forward good governance and an end to corruption as gangplanks of its public policy.

NEXT WEEK: WHO MAKES A DICTATOR?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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