Monday, May 31, 2010

Talkin' bout a Revolution

For the last 40 years or more uprisings in Trinidad and Tobago come around every 20 years. On the last two occasions, in 1970 and 1990, the country was faced with violence and bloodshed as the seat of power was attempted to be wrested from democratically elected governments. Both times were as a result of people or interest groups believing that the government of the day was acting outside of the nation's best interest.

In 2010, again, 20 years after the Jamaat attempted coup of 1990, the aura of the nation was again ripe for revolution. With widespread allegations of corruption, crime and fiscal mismanagement coupled with a ruling party that controlled 26 of 41 seats, despite having a mandate from only 45% of the population in the last election, there was an air of frustration and growing discontent among citizens.

However, unlike previous years, in 2010, a revolution of democracy occurred. Gifted a General Election by the incumbent Prime Minister, 30 months before it was due, the opposition received widespread support and ousted Patrick Manning to install Kamla Persad Bissessar as the country's first female Prime Minister. Whether or not that bears any significance in the 21st century is debatable. What is remarkable about the victory is the fact that the incumbent only lost about 15,000 votes overall, a decrease of about 5% from the last election while the combined opposition was able to motivate an additional 80,000 people, an additional 23%, to cast their ballots in their favor. Even more so is the fact that almost every single new voter would have voted for the coalition.

And this is where the revolution begins to take shape. New voters would have been the apathetic voters of the last election and the generally indifferent youth constituency. The fact that these two groups, and more so, remarkably, from all accounts, the youth turned out in such force for what was effectively a rescue operation for this country shows that, regardless of the pronouncements of the political pundits, once given 1. A viable alternative and 2. A wildly unpopular incumbent, people can be mobilised to vote. And vote they did, with over 722,000 ballots cast (70%) in the biggest turnout since independence and the largest win for any party over the PNM since 1986; a 17 seat advantage with a special majority and a 20% victory in the popular vote.

Former Prime Minister Panday probably put it best when he said we would have to wait to see if this new government is indeed change or exchange. However, from the early signs, utterances and appointments, there seems to be a genuine desire to move away from the politics of the last 8 years, and indeed from the last 40 odd years of totalitarian rule by whichever person who holds the office of Prime Minister.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar is perhaps one of the luckiest politicians in the world and I mean that in the best way possible. After Panday called the internal election of the UNC she amazingly (by margin, not necessarily result) emerged a 10:1 victor, and one month later acquired enough support to become this country's first substantive female opposition leader (previously being appointed by Panday to serve in the post).

In addition, she was facilitated generously by the architect of the coalition, Congress of the People leader and now Minister of Finance, Winston Dookeran, in the run up to the May 24 polls. Throwing his and his party's support, unequivocally behind her as the candidate and giving up potential seats in Diego Martin NE, St Ann's East, Port of Spain North, La Horquetta/Talparo and Toco/Sangre Grande (to the UNC), Pointe a Pierre (MSJ) and Point Fortin (NJAC), in exchange for 1 UNC safe seat (St. Augustine), Mr. Dookeran again demonstrated his party's philosophy of country first.

The result of all this was Mrs. Persad-Bissessar leading a coalition into a General Election where she would emerge as Prime Minister with a massive majority for the coalition and a simple majority (21 seats) for her party by itself. It also made her the shortest served Leader of the Opposition in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, serving exactly, and merely 3 months. Surely this would not have been what the Pandays, Rameshes and Ramnaths would have anticipated had they been advised by their personal prophets or prophetesses that Kamla would last only 3 months as Opposition Leader!

In the space of less than a year, the two most experienced members of Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago and two fomer Prime Ministers have been humbled, one completely out of office. The armor of the old guard of politicians in this country is now perhaps destroyed beyond recovery. Race was the least influential in the minds of voters as it has ever been. A more educated and enlightened population that demanded that issues be addressed and unsuccessfully called for a debate between the candidates voted primarily on just that. Issues.

This isn't to say that we've made it. Hardly so. But it is a significant step in the right direction. Kamla has many to thank, but none more so than the youth. It was this group that ensured her victory. It is now her responsibility, aided by her government to execute the mandate so overwhelmingly entrusted in her. It is OUR responsibility, as citizens and as youth to ensure that that mandate is executed without the arrogance and lack of accountability and transparency of the previous administrations.

It is our duty in the next election to ensure that we get our elusive debate. It is our duty to ensure that they have kept their promises on constitutional reform and fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency. Because in the same way we revolted against the incumbent in 2010 in the most significant demonstration of democracy, we must, without fear, be prepared to do the same in 2015 (or earlier) if this government fails to heed the lessons of their past.

Never again must we allow governments to get free rides on the basis of race or handouts. Never again must we tolerate the arrogance and wastefulness of politicians past. Never again must we facilitate maximum leaders in our Government. Never Again.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean and an Endorsement

We should have elections more often. There's much talk of election reform and the need to have fixed dates for General Elections in Trinidad and Tobago. I propose April 1 of any year, as long as it ends with 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 or 0. And we should ensure that elections are held at least every 3 years, 2 years if we're in a recession.

The reasons are simple. Elections in this country are a great stimulus for the economy. They provide employment, from canvassers to overtime pay for police officers. They ensure that the media houses are well looked after; I mean, it's only in sweet T&T that a 1 hour newscast runs for one and a half hours, just to accommodate the volume of election ads. It ensures that money trickles down to the less fortunate; whether it's Jack and his US$200 in San Fernando West or Esther and her rolled up TT$300 in Tunapuna. Motorcades provide an even greater impetus to the gas stations and service shops, already not doing so badly with the hundreds of thousands of vehicles on the road. Not to mention the contracts for the ad agencies, T-Shirt companies, button makers, flag makers (probably not the $2 million flag makers, that probably a little too rich for this kinda season) and caterers.

Apart from that, there's the inherent entertainment value. From a 65 year old giving 20 year olds sex advice, to doctored photos which no one had seen until it was held up in a public meeting by the 'victim' herself, to strange accents and hairdos and cringe-worthy songs, which were even more cringingly sung along to.

But of all this, the talk about ships seem to have overtaken the campaigns. From one ship with 5 captains claiming that the other's ship is sinking to a 'mutineer' threatening a court martial against his captain of 24 years. Granted, the incumbent's ship seems to have sprung a few leaks, which will make their re election that much more difficult and one wonders what direction,if any, the other ship can sail in given the different ideologies of their captains but does this all matter if the ships never left harbour anyway? What point is there in all this ship talk if no new horizons have been explored or treasures returned?

But to this court martial; are we to expect Dr. Rowley to mount an insurgent campaign against Manning once the election is over, a la Jack and Ramesh? If so, how does this play out in a situation where the PNM wins a slim majority, say 21-20. And where does he get his support to do so, now that his Jacks and Rameshes have been wiped clean off the slate by Manning? And what form will this take, considering that Rowley will have no authority to launch any investigation into Manning, and, judging from the 1997 attempt, also has very little support amongst the delegates of the PNM?

Rowley's best chance for leadership of the party, apart from him potentially leading a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister soon after Parliament is assembled, is for the PNM to lose the election. That would put additional pressure on Manning to step down, and perhaps lead to a public endorsement of Rowley from the General Council of the PNM. Whereas there are other issues for the PNM to deal with, their image at this moment is tethered to the machinations and fortunes of its political leader; a leader so unpopular that he has spurned T-Shirts with slogans such as: 'We vex, but we voting PNM'

And onto the Partnership, with their 5 captains. It's not as cobbled together a mess as some would like to make it to be. In truth, there are 2 parties in the coalition. There is near to no chance that NJAC will hold a seat, Point Fortin being their best hope. Errol McLeod may win his seat for the MSJ, while the TOP may win 1, perhaps 2 seats in Tobago. The COP has to win at least 2 or 3 seats for the coalition to form the government; but more than that, the COP has the support of a wide cross section of the population, as does the UNC. Combined, they can easily pull over 300,000 votes; with some polls estimating that their tally may even cross 400,000 come Monday.

While there are dangers of a coalition government not lasting its term, that has never been the case in Trinidad and Tobago. All collapsed governments have been single party, namely 1991-1995 (P), 2000-2001(U), 2001-2002 (P) and 2007-2010 (P). In addition, the structure of the Partnership, in it's truest and most ideological form, should allow checks and balances as it seemingly prevents any of its constituent parties from gaining a majority of seats by themselves.

So what does this all mean? Well weighing the good with the bad in its most basic sense, the PNM has to be given credit for initiating and continuing programmes such as GATE. They have to be commended for the Waterfront Project and the Summits (YES, commended). The IFC was constructed in an attempt to diversify the economy away from oil and gas. The Summits were meant to raise T&T's profile to allow companies, through the Business Forums to establish their presence here. Not this, or any other government could have foreseen the collapse of financial institutions around the world.

Serious, unaddressed questions remain about the Prime Minister's Residence, NAPA, the Legal Affairs Tower, the Tarouba Stadium, the Scarborough Hospital, the National Oncology Centre in Mt Hope, the Church in Gunapo, 'secret scolarships', crime, health and basic infrastructure. And most distressingly, only TT$20 billion in the Revenue and Stabalisation Fund; less than a year worth of government expenditure. All this after buoyant oil and gas prices, and revenues cresting TT$300 billion.

It is for the latter stated reasons that I will endorse the People's Partnership in an all round attempt at change. I don't believe that the Partnership is perfect and vigilance must be assumed for people such as Warner, McLeod, Sharma and Indarsingh. They must be held accountable and to a higher standard than the incumbent, because they have insisted on a higher standard themselves.

But I believe that a Partnership change will engender change in the way government is run. I believe that it will engender change in the way the economy is handled. And I believe that it will engender change in the PNM. It will allow for the nation to breathe easier for a while, while allowing the PNM to regroup to be a strong opposition party with a new leader and truly new faces (ie. without the arrogance of Imbert, Enill, Brown, McDonald and the ilk).

I encourage people to vote for the Partnership, but if one is not so inclined to do, I just encourage people to vote. Even if you aren't satisfied with either of the parties, take the time off to go and deliberately spoil your ballot, so that it will be counted as a protest vote against both parties. By not voting and remaining silent, you consent to the status quo, and a no vote is a silent vote in support of the party in power, whichever party that may be.