To vote, just how we party … Towards culturally relevant representation for T&T

‘How we vote is not how we party.’
At ‘all inclusive’ fetes and other forums, we nod in inebriated wisdom to calypsonian David Rudder’s elucidation of the paradoxical political vs. social realities of Trinidad and Tobago. Then we go back to sipping – rum, Guinness and Puncheon if one is UNC and believe in the Prime Minister, and if one is PNM – something else, yet-to-be-named by Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s united Opposition camp.
Our cultural repertoire has for long upheld our social underpinnings in unity, tolerance and camaraderie evident in part in Carnival, the ‘greatest show on earth’; while our political pundits continue to pronounce that voting in Trinidad and Tobago has largely been along ethnic lines, because the two major parties have largely ethnic bases.
We have accepted the validity of each posture and their nauseous compendium of evidence, giving little effort to understanding or explaining the paradox.
Absent in the political analyses is the fact that our politics makes us reluctant brides and bridegrooms of the PNM or UNC. Whether one is or wants to be one or the other, it stereotypes IndoTrinidadians as affiliates of the UNC and Afro-Trinidadians as loyal to the PNM. Any aberration to this – non-IndoTrini support for UNC and non-Afro Trini support for PNM – is dubbed the ‘cross-over’ vote of the ‘mixed’ population and the ‘floating’ (‘intelligent’) vote that is looking for a third party to latch on to whether it takes them into government or not (implying too that intelligence does not characterize either the PNM or the UNC, and if there are such elements, they too are aberrations).
Those (third) political parties that have failed to win seats have also dismissed the population as racially-driven on this basis of our two-party mentality, with little studied attempts to seriously identify why they failed to make the political grade, or seriously analyse their failures to adequately identify with and reach out to the populace in a manner that can swing voters out of the traditional, unappetizing, offerings.
The simple reality is in the two-party system that has developed in T&T, one is almost forced (so much for democratic right) – to choose one of the two political offerings. The alternative is to abstain, and deny oneself the option of franchise – only an option if one does not subscribe to the right to vote as the ultimate power in a democracy.
The National Alliance for Reconstruction’s victory in 1986 seemed poised to break the two party mould. Riding on its all inclusive ticket of ‘one-love’, the NAR – a coalition government – promised to prove that how we vote can be how we party with its overwhelming sweep of 33-3 seats. Unfortunately, it collapsed unto itself before it could so do.

It’s the Constitution, stupid!

Various other analyses tell us that the culprit is the T&T Constitution and there is an indisputable need for Constitution reform, given evident flaws in T&T Constitutions past and present. Both the 1961 (Independence) Constitution and the 1976 (Republic) Constitution were clearly already obsolete from their inception, with their unworkable British import of the first-past-the-post/winner-take-all-model and evident failure as they disenfranchise large numbers of voters as occurred in the 1981, 2001, 2002 and 2007 general elections.
The alternative, proportional representation, which offers each party numbers of seats in parliament according to the proportion of votes they command, has received some attention, but, like first-past-the post, it upholds a party-based system that gives politicians divine status and places them at the centre of decision-making, which we have seen, with demands for a bottoms-up approach, itself cannot hold.
The Wooding (1971) and Hyatali (1974) Commissions set up to explore Constitutional reform, proposed another, a mixed system drawing from first past the post and proportional representative models. This has been rejected by the PNM’s Williams and Manning, though all – PNM and the Commissions – premised their arguments on our diversity which they define largely as ethnic diversity.
Manning put forward in 2006 a ‘working document’ on Constitutional Reform, drawn up primarily by a one-man Commission (former President Ellis Clarke) and after-the-fact staged some public ‘consultations’ – an approach interpreted as paying lip service to public opinion. His draft provided for an executive President as in the USA which would give even more executive powers to an already maximum leader of the first-past-the-post system, without correcting (but rather further emasculating) those instruments and institutions that provide checks and balances on such ‘Massa’ power. These include the judiciary and the legislature, and others as the Ombudsman, the Director of Public Prosecution, the Commissioner of Police, the magistracy, Commissions for Integrity, Judicial and Legal Services, Police Service, Public Service, Teaching Service etc. It also proposes to restrict the principle of Freedom of Expression (the the Media) by altering the Bill of Rights.
Another Constitution, drafted by the self-assigned 2006 Fairness Committee of four leaned on a further amalgamation – of the Manning model (though produced before Manning’s) supporting an Executive President, along with a mixed system of proportional representation and first-past-the-post as recommended by the Wooding and Hyatali Commissions.
One challenge after the other to the Constitution has surfaced since the NAR to show that the Constitution is not just dog-eared, but coming apart at the seams and irrelevant in a rapidly changing world:
• The PNM’s challenge of Winston ‘Gypsy’ Peters dual citizenship
• The 2002 18-18 deadlocked elections which were not catered for in the Constitution;
• Other challenges, mainly related to cockfighting by Panday and Robinson – appointments through the Senate of persons who had been defeated in the polls;
• The chicken-and-egg crisis precipitated by the Standing Order for electing a Speaker before convening the House when neither party wanted to propose a Speaker
The Constitution, say the experts, has outlived its usefulness.
To justify his quest for an Executive President /US styled governance system, PNM leader Patrick Manning has sought to justify his high-handed approach to decision-making with arguments that the extremely diverse nature of the society and their many competing interests made it difficult to govern and needed ‘strong’ leadership.
But at the risk of sounding like a prophetess, the diversity of T&T is indeed its primary character, and anyone who cannot manage our diversity is doomed to failure! Anyone who wants to govern effectively must unite the diversity rather than seek ever more exclusive power to overrule it; (the consequences of ignoring the public over an extended period have been graphically illustrated by the events of recent weeks).The experts tell us that the Constitution – and the West Minster styled parliamentary system it establishes cannot accommodate that diversity; others, like the PNM – undeniably the most experienced party in T&T – argue that neither could proportional representation. Both, it seems are partly in the right; but wholly wrong.

Leadership crisis – single party and coalition

The search for the ideal model has been around the debate of whether the single party or coalition government is the better model. Both have been tried and tested and found wanting. As analyst Dr Bishnu Ragoonath observed, the three occasions when our governments prematurely collapsed have been as single party governments – Panday’s in 2001 and Manning’s in 1995, and 2010. Majority rule by a maximum leader with powers equivalent to the Divine Right of Kings in a single party is losing sway on a population becoming more astute and unwilling to continue as blind, unquestioning sheep-like followers. Governance by any one majority ethnic group is become unsavoury to growing and more vociferous elements, demanding recognition of our cultural and other diversity, denied in Williams ‘No Mother India, no Mother Africa’ maxim which seemed not to grasp the complexity of the identity issue.
Nor have coalitions worked either; not two examples, the alliance governments of 1986 and 1991 – both of which evolved out of forces opposing the PNM and including Panday’s UNC, Robinson’s Democratic Action Congress, Karl Hudson-Phillips’ Organisation for National Reconstruction, Lloyd Best’s Tapia and various others.
They failed not because the structure of the coalitions was tested, nor because of challenges of managing our complex diversity – they never got a chance. They failed because – as with the maximum leader mode of single party politics – managing the diverse egos of a man-rat driven political culture, continuously tested the Constitution and the governance model, promoting the eminence of constitutional lawyers and legal messiahs.
They failed because of unenlightened or misguided leadership that failed to respect the needs and wishes of its people.

Kamla’s People’s Partnership option

Now, Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s bid for the premiership proposes a People’s Partnership, in which the partners acknowledge and commit to her leadership. It presents another option for development and progress.
The People’s Partnership seems neither of the winner-takes-all, nor of the proportional representation models, nor a mix of both. It appears to be a significant departure from all the models discussed above, no wonder many are still trying to come to terms with it.
By making all the diverse elements of the population potential winners: civil society, NGO, labour, youth, academics, opposition forces, the elderly, women, with the potential that they can all be represented in the Government, even without changing the Constitution , it has presented a platform closely representative of our diversity.
It seems a bold way of circumventing the limitations of the Constitution’s winner-take-all modem, without the need to undertake the labourious and time-consuming Constitutional change or reform being posited. It answers the call for a new political paradigm in which people have a central and more active voice in governance; of a government driven from the ground up, rather than the top down. It is an expression of political will guided by the will of the people, which speaks directly to the leadership void. With each partner expressly, publicly and emphatically committing to recognising her as leader, one envisions she will rule the roost as a mother would her nest of clamouring, sometimes self-absorbed, chicks. She has proven herself not incapable of the task, having manoeuvred through the UNC’s macho-driven shenanigans of the last two decades, and obviously also out-manoeuvred her formidable competitors to inherit the coveted crown of leadership of the party while defying her predecessor’s threat that ‘none shall escape unscathed’ by effectively emerging ‘unscathed’ herself.
Where this will go, remains to be seen, but meantime, anticipating revisions to the strains of Rudder’s ‘how we vote is how we’ll party, I’ll drink to new directions.

Dr Kris Rampersad is a Media Cultural and Literary Consultant;

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