Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Election Country

Trinidad and Tobago heads to the polls on May 24 for its fifth General Election in 10 years. Three of those five elections were arguably necessary given the expiration of elected terms (2000 and 2007) and a hung Parliament (2002). Interestingly, the other two occasions were as a result of Prime Ministers fearing that they, and by extension, their governments would face fairly dicey Motions of No Confidence; Basdeo Panday in 2001 following the fallout with his Attorney-General and two other Members of Parliament and again in 2010, with Patrick Manning, who surrendered a very comfortable majority in the House of Representatives (26-15), only 29 months after winning his mandate.

For Manning, a four-time elected Prime Minister and the longest serving MP in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, this is his second snap election and is shaping up to be one of the most difficult elections that his party would have ever faced. Indeed, before a vote has even been cast, the Prime Minister and his party go into the elections of May 24 with a virtually reduced majority, a top PNM official being quoted as saying they hope to retain 22-23 seats. I suspect that that number reflects a best case scenario by their strategists.

But what of this obsession with elections? In 2007, the Opposition (UNC and COP) were obliterated in the Parliament, despite together polling more than 52% of the popular vote. While it made the PNM a minority elected government with a large Parliamentary majority, it also paved the way for some stability, given the breathing room afforded to the newly re-elected Prime Minister. In fact the PNM's win in 2007 was the largest margin given to any party since the 1986 NAR assumed office with 33 seats. And despite being plagued with issues of corruption surrounding Udecott, delivery of basic services, some unpopular personalities in Government and a noisy Opposition, it stretches the mind to think that even a combination of these things can force a Prime Minister to call an election with an 11 seat cushion in a 41 seat House.

Now, we have the situation of the Opposition being gifted a General Election at the height of incumbent unpopularity. They have cobbled together a deal, an accord, an arrangement, not much of which has been made public as yet. What we do know is that Kamla Persad-Bissessar is the Prime Ministerial candidate and, if successful at the polls, will go down not only as the first female Prime Minister but also as the shortest served Leader of the Opposition. Poor Bas; this certainly wasn't what he would have had in mind if someone told him that 3 months after assuming the position Kamla would no longer be Leader of the Opposition!

What is most disappointing in the short campaign thus far, is the almost comical avoidance of the issues by both platforms. Neither have come forward with a Manifesto. Where are the policies on crime, utilities, infrastructure, constitutional reform and health? Both are keen to play to their respective bases, one with 'It's a Love Thing', the other with an embarrassingly tacky use of Celine's 'A New Day'. I can see the VH-1 folks beginning to compile their list of the 100 worst election songs ever!

But it brings us to the point where the PNM is hoping to win this election by holding its base intact and the UNC/COP/etc hoping to win by convincing us, esoterically, that the PNM is worse so they should automatically get our votes. There doesn't seem to be any enthusiasm to present themselves as viable parties with definite plans for T&T. Election fatigue much? It's gotten so bad in the last 10 years that whereas previously, unelected candidates would quietly go back to their daily lives and jobs, there's almost a celebrity attached to these names. Names like Princess Smart, Rocky Garcia and Gavin Nicholas.

All this in the face of an arguably unnecessary election, which is costing taxpayers at least $23 million as per the EBC and God alone knows how much more with the wanton use of the Government Information Services Limited as a thinly veiled augmentation of the administration's campaign. As for the other side, it probably doesn't take too many guesses to determine where their financing is coming from. And in the true spirit of T&T politics, there must be some expectation of reward (read: corruption and nepotism) for such huge investments over the course of the last two elections.

And what of you, the electorate? Well apart from being distracted from everything imaginable, including CXC/CAPE, Fashion Week, T20 and ODI cricket, the first African Football World Cup and life, in general, we have to ask ourselves what kind of country we live in when 4 of our last 6 governments have collapsed (1995, 2000, 2001, 2010). What impact does this have on our faltering economy and our international image? And where do we go from here?

At this point it's too late to register to vote. But if you are registered, ensure that you do vote for your party, or even if you have to go into your polling booth and deliberately spoil your ballot because you believe that you cannot, with a good conscience, vote for any of the options presented to you. After all, an opportunity like this comes only once every five years. Well, at least theoretically.

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