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End ethnic politics, party fanaticism

Published: 
Sunday, January 24, 2016

It is an opportune time to begin the transformation of party politics in T&T; change is absolutely necessary if we are to achieve a higher quality of governance from elected administrations. The polity (all of us) must free itself from the ethnic party politics which, among other things, distorts the economy and delivers poor governance. Ethnic politics and its handmaiden, party fanaticism, prevent the utilisation of the most qualified and experienced people in critical state agencies.

The ethnic leaders place party hacks in highly responsible positions in the state apparatus for no other reason than their loyalty to race and party. This phenomenon of poor quality governance is apparent in good and bad economic times—and by this I mean whether revenue from the energy sector is flowing in abundance or not. Poor quality governance during the relatively good times of the last five years was clearly apparent. The phenomenon was also evident during the eight-year period before 2010 when the PNM was in office and everyone was “cooking with gas.”

Poor governance by succeeding governments, driven by the politics of the tribe and all that flows from that, has contributed in no small measure to where the country has found itself today. 

Infrastructure and human development have been distorted and derailed by considerations other than sound economic policies and planning. In power, parties have fixed their tribe and repaid party financiers from the treasury.

But the circumstances of the present can contribute to change. There are now assured benefits for political parties if they seek to adopt a programme for transformation, even if only for self-serving purposes. For instance, if the opposition United National Congress is to make political and electoral inroads into constituencies outside of its base support, it will have to change the mind of those who are deeply skeptical about the nature of UNC politics. The lack of organisational strength in the UNC was on display during the internal elections campaign; the parts of the whole came easily separated.

Approximately 2,500 members voted for leadership contenders out of a stated membership figure of over 100,000.

For the People’s National Movement, this moment in government gives the party an opportunity to demonstrate that it can shed its historical image of being essentially a party of the black lower and middle classes. Further, the PNM government must show to those who do not support it, that it can lead the way out of what Prime Minister Rowley expects to be a prolonged slump beyond the medium term. The PNM Government requires raw support and expert input across political and ethnic boundaries if it is to begin tackling the fundamental problems of the economy.

If the transformation is not engendered in the politics of the UNC, the party runs the risk of languishing in opposition. If the PNM government of the day does not move to a radical shift-away from its traditional pattern of governance that favours its support base, then it will again lose office.

The recent history of electoral politics substantiates what has been said above about the failures of party politics resulting from mobilization and organisation around race and blind party loyalty. The failure was experienced too in the efforts of the UNC and others even when they have sought to engage in coalition politics; the coming together has been no more than attempts to win government.

The coalitions of the 1980s, starting with local government elections and culminating in the National Alliance for Reconstruction (1986) when that coalition received the overwhelming support and enthusiasm of the electorate, floundered when its tribes pulled apart. 

The UNC-Tobago (Democratic Action Congress) post-electoral alliance that grabbed the Government from the PNM after the 17-17 outcome of 1995, imploded after the UNC successfully took hold of the Government. The stated policy of the UNC under Basdeo Panday that any political marriage it may enter into must be conceived on a UNC bed was repeated during the term of the People’s Partnership. 

The Congress of the People was destroyed by the UNC, and no real attempt was made to assist the Tobago Organisation of the People to gain political ground on the sister isle. The failure to implement constitutional change to shift power to the Tobago House of Assembly and the people of Tobago was one of the major failures of the UNC’s party politics.

Over on the other side, the PNM has never attempted to bring about a change in the politics through meaningful alliances with other political forces and ethnicities. Patrick Manning made it clear that his party would win, lose or draw as a tribe rather than concede space and power through an alliance with another tribe or group.

In the 2015 general election, the PNM made a few concessions and attracted a measure of support from parts of Indo-Trinidad. Indeed, PNM leader Dr Rowley said the party won the majority vote through the increased votes gathered from UNC constituencies.

But the political failures have not only been between and among coalition partners, internally the tribal parties, the UNC and the PNM, have marginalized their ethnic support bases once the hierarchy got into government. This too is part of the political failures of the parties and their supporters; dramatic change is needed if there is to be progress in party politics and government. Who will drive that change is the issue.

To be continued.

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