10 October 2003, 847 words
The 70 percent voter turnout in Monday's general election seems to lead to two conclusions: one, that people aren't as fed up of politicians and their antics as most commentators believed; and, two, that Trinbagonians are very concerned about exercising their democratic rights.
It has also been suggested that the high turnout was the result of the floating voters coming out to get rid of the UNC. While this may be so, I doubt that it is the primary explanation. True, the PNM got an 18.5 percent increase in its votes as compared to last year, but the UNC also got a five percent increase. And Lloyd Best has argued that there aren't really any floating voters in Trinidad - i.e. people who vote for PNM or UNC at different times. Instead, he says, there are just people who don't vote, and the changing patterns are really due to immigration.
If Best is right, then the voters who came out in such numbers this year were not floating voters, but simply PNM-mites who had not voted last year. So, far from indicating a concern for democracy, the 70 percent turnout may actually reflect a growing tribalism on the part of the two ethnic groups.
If this is so, it is a worrying development. The populace has always been able to keep the racial split in the country's politics separate from its other social institutions. But if tribalism is growing, then that demarcation may become blurred.
The only way to combat this is to deepen the democracy of our political institutions. The reforms required to do this - in the Constitution and in the Parliament - have already been worked out. But will it happen? Not if we leave it up to the politicians. The problem is, any reforms which deepen democracy inevitably lessens the power of the Prime Minister. That is why our political leaders resist reform.
Even so, politicians are not the only political players in a society. History shows that societies do not become democratic by the efforts of the masses, but by the efforts of its elites. Where the masses have exerted control, totalitarian rule has always been the ironic outcome. But, where a society's elites have come to realise the benefits of catering to the needs of ordinary citizens, democratic rule has become entrenched.
So are our elites committed to democracy? The signs are not encouraging. In the run-up to the election, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce ran its own set of ads encouraging people to go out and vote. "If you abstain, you can't complain" and "Make a difference" were their slogans.
This campaign accurately reflected what Best means when he says our society has no politics. Take the first slogan: how does abstaining remove my right to complain? And, flipping the assertion, doesn't that mean that everyone who voted PNM cannot now criticise the Government, no matter what tata they may do?
But it was the second slogan which I found especially hypocritical. As the UNC showed us during its tenure, and as Patrick Manning revealed by his hasty recapitulation over the Jamaat land offer, it is often businessmen who crack the whip on political leaders. So the Chamber's members know better than anyone else that the individual's vote really makes no difference in our present system.
So why did the Chamber run its ad campaign? Not because it was concerned about democracy, but because another 18-18 deadlock would have resulted in the suspension of Government business, which would have hit the Chamber's members right in their pocketbooks.
And what about our other elites? Have they been able to rise above the tribal perspectives of the masses? It seems not. A column written by Selwyn Ryan in the Sunday Express on October 6 was instructive. Arguing that to return the UNC to power would be to "inflict damage and bad karma on the national psyche and stain the national reputation indelibly", Ryan wrote that "Mr Manning may be stubborn and gaffe-prone but he is neither a rogue nor a dictator. His instincts are also decent..."
But Ryan didn't once mention that Manning's "decent instincts" led him to offer the Jamaat land: and that little omission showed where Ryan, for all his claims to be making a moral argument, was really coming from.
Meanwhile, a few weeks before the election, Ryan's university colleague and fellow political analyst Hamid Ghany saw nothing wrong in giving a solicited opinion in support of the US firm Calmaquip, which has been trying to block attempts by the Government to get documents related to the airport inquiry.
The net result is that two of the country's best known political commentators are now seen as biased: and since neither of them ever had anything original to offer in terms of theory, their significance in our political evolution can only be negligible or negative.
This, then, is the political culture of our elites. How we can ever move forward with such people in charge is a conundrum to which I have not a clue.
Copyright ©2003 Kevin Baldeosingh