Reflections on Trinidad elections
I used to think that the spirit of consternation, which Barbadians experience when asked to talk about themselves in relation to business or politics, was a feature of this physical space only. However, on my visit to cover the recent general election in Trinidad and Tobago, I discovered that Trinidadians are just as shy about national discussions. I should qualify this.
Young Trinidadians (I cannot speak of Tobagonians, as I did not hop to Tobago) were very guarded about going on camera to continue discussions, which I found them having very comfortably across the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies, or in the market, or on public transport. I asked one young man, who was emphatically apologetic about his unwillingness to be interviewed, and he mumble-jumbled through an explanation that boiled down to his being afraid to be discriminated against when he was ready to get a job.
As a person who has been involved in the forefront of political communication for almost a decade, I cannot say that the fears of the young man are completely unfounded. There is a risk that comes with active political involvement in small societies. However, I am not convinced that the tentacles of discrimination reach the personal level in a way that should make us so paranoid about sharing any or all aspects of our personal stories with newspaper writers or talk show hosts.
If the intention is to become involved in politics frontally, these issues become concerns, but as badly warped as our democracies are, I do not believe we have lost the right to grant a simple interview –– and if we think we have, we should all be reeling at the implications.
Notwithstanding the camera shyness, there is a fundamental difference between Trinidadians and Barbadians in the consumption of their politics. While they are camera-shy, Trinbagonians are very engaged in their democratic process.
Trinbagonians still participate in a number of community-derived clubs and other societies that keep them banded into groups that lobby for change and agenda setting in the national life of the country. When questions of governance are raised Trinbagonians still expect answers, and the elected government can choose not to answer at its political peril.
That was the takeaway lesson from the defeat of the Kamla Persad-Bissessar-led United National Congress.
Apart from the mass support (mainly along racial lines) for each major political party, there is around a 33 per cent undecided votership in Trinidad and Tobago that sways the election result, based on its voting after consideration of issues and policy needs. This 33 per cent is racially diverse and is made up of young professionals and entrepreneurs who are middle-class and generally educated.
This contrasts with Barbados where the election is usually decided by the mass support of either political party with the undecided voters opting out of the political process by refusing to vote. Staying at home means that our undecided voters choose a default government of whichever party has the better mobilization machinery among its base, rather than a middle balancing out the outcome of the polls with sober reflection.
Trinidadians have witnessed a breakdown in various systems during the late 1980s and 1990s. To name a few that come readily to mind, there were issues with their police service and a need to regulate behaviour in public life. Not exaggerating the results of reform efforts, the last general election shows that the political culture of Trinidad and Tobago is changing in such a way that makes people unwilling to vote for parties who do not seem to make their governance accountable.
Police response in Trinidad has changed from a force structure to a service. Every difficulty has not been answered, but Trinidad feels like a more “settled” society than on previous visits. It seems to be a society engaged in solution building.
Another interesting fact about the Trinbagonian political space is that the prime ministership of Persad-Bissessar has completely and permanently shattered the glass ceiling in the political arena. Early in the election run-up the People’s National Movement (PNM) was forced to reverse its anti-woman campaign against Persad-Bissessar, once it was found not to be resonating with the masses. People have shortcomings.
Male Caribbean prime ministers, as useful as they have been to this region, have had proclivities towards the flesh: womanizing, drinking and spending the public purse flamboyantly. The collective question Trinbagonians posed and which forced the PNM into recoil was: so what if a woman does it too?
That single question paved the way for women to forever be a legitimate and serious part of the political life of Trinidad and Tobago.
It is almost an embarrassing paradox that in a democracy which I am comfortable to label as far more mature than Barbados’, the racial element is still pervasive in the political process. The UNC rally is still littered with predominately Indo-Trinidadian attendees. The PNM efforts are awash with Afro-descended supporters.
The divide seems to be as thick as Trinidadian oil sludge and water –– no mixing is evident. The upside is that the division seems to maintain respect.
As long as the campaign ran this cycle, there were very few unfortunate incidents between supporters on either side. People made their way to their respective rallies. They wore their party jerseys and paraphernalia on shopping trips and other outings. All this happened in a relaxed environment of “agree to disagree”.
Several promises were made to the people of Trinidad and Tobago by current Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. Many sounded akin to the promises made by the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in the 2008 campaign. Perhaps this is what piqued the interest of our own Minister of Finance, inspiring him to reach out to the new leader of Trinidad and Tobago with words of guidance.
Dr Rowley has proved himself in touch with the pulse of the people of Trinidad and Tobago in his successful campaign, and only he will know which advice he should heed. For what it is worth, though, I would tell the new honourable prime minister that Trinbagonians are not Barbadians. Five years is a long time; but as Trinibagonians have shown, not long enough for them to forget what they perceive as poor governance and arrogance in office.
I would also tell him that if there is one thing he should ensure his PNM does, is strive to be the diametrical opposite of the DLP –– and that, Honourable Prime Minister, is all!
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University
of the West Indies. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)