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A long road to redemption

By Michael Harris

In the midst of all the other political developments taking place in the country I have not had the chance to comment on the outcomes of the special convention held by the PNM earlier this month to vote on the proposed amendments to that party's constitution.

The special convention was held to ratify changes to the party's constitution which had been recommended by a special committee headed by Bridgid Annisette-George which had been set up by political leader, Keith Rowley a few months after the 2010 general elections which had seen the party comprehensively defeated.

Among the proposals which were put before the delegates at the convention were the removal of the veto power exercisable by the political leader in the selection of candidates for elections, the creation of a political leader for Tobago, chosen by Tobago delegates in a convention in Tobago, the reduction in the term of office of the political leader from five years to four years and the implementation of the one-man, one-vote system to replace the delegate system in the election of party officers.

All the proposed changes put to the convention were overwhelmingly approved. Understandably there was great jubilation among party leaders over the results, with general secretary Ashton Forde declaring that it was "an emotional and historic moment for the PNM".

There is certainly no denying that the outcome of the convention signals a significant step forward for the PNM. The adoption of the one-man, one-vote system, in particular, was a change long overdue. It was always a shame and a travesty that the party which boasted that it was the oldest political institution in the country could have maintained, for so long, such a fundamentally anti-democratic practice for its internal elections as the delegate system.

The jubilation of the party leaders after the convention would also have been prompted by the fact that, in adopting the new constitutional arrangements, there was hardly a voice of opposition to be heard at the convention. It would however be a mistake for them to believe either that the absence of opposition in the convention translates to an absence of opposition in the party or that the new arrangements are all that is necessary for the party to become, once again, a vital force.

The new arrangements certainly constitute a strong and necessary foundation upon which the party can be rebuilt but those changes are, by no stretch of the imagination, sufficient and the party leadership still has a long way to go and much work to do if they are to remake the party as a viable political institution.

That work has two dimensions. The first is within the party and the second in the country as a whole. The absence of opposition at the convention in no way signals an absence of opposition in the party. The forces which coalesced around and gave encouragement and succour to Mr Manning when he gave every indication of wanting to take back the party are still there. They may have gone silent once Mr Manning's debilitating stroke removed him from the equation but they are still there, available to be coalesced around another champion.

Whether such passive abstention morphs into active opposition essentially depends on the view they take of how Dr Rowley plays his hand going forward. If they believe that Dr Rowley's efforts are positioning the party to win back control of the government at the next elections they will hold their hands. If not, they will find the "man" to lead their insurgency. And there are always persons willing to assume the mantle of saviour.

So the real issue is what Dr Rowley is going to do to reposition the party in the eyes of the electorate in general. It would be a serious miscalculation for Dr Rowley and his supporters to believe that the mistakes, mis-steps and misfeasance so rampant in the People's Partnership administration are going to be sufficient to convince the electorate to remove them and usher the PNM back into office come the next election.

In this respect astute political strategists within the party would acknowledge several factors. The first is, as I have said before, that the PNM carries with it significant negative baggage from the past. The party has lost its legitimacy and until that vital resource is restored no matter how badly the Government performs it is not going to make any difference in terms of the population's acceptance of the PNM as a credible alternative.

The second factor is that the political balance has changed. We no longer operate a two-party system (if we ever did). There is now in the equation a third force which impacts to a significant extent the outcome of national elections. When that third force, which is growing ever larger, is aligned to either of the two main parties (or voting blocs) then that is the voting bloc which wins the election.

The third point is that if that third force sits out the election, as it has often done, then, under present demographic circumstances, and given the powers of incumbency, the likely outcome of any straight fight between the PNM and the People's Partnership is that the latter would win. Such a victory would not be the landslide of 2010 but a victory it would be nonetheless.

If these assessments are correct then it is clear that the PNM still has a lot of work to do. In this respect the words I wrote in this column in July of 2010 are still relevant. The party needs to formulate a new vision "capable of exciting, wooing and winning the country once again."

To develop and communicate such a vision the party needs to attract back into its ranks men and women of intellectual capacity and of integrity. "But to attract such people the party has to radically alter itself. It cannot remain the monolithic authoritarian vehicle that it is today and attract such people. It cannot continue to pander to the lowest common denominator in our society and attract such people. It cannot continue to base the core of its appeal of a crass racism and attract such people. And it cannot continue to provide harbour for all manner of con-men and jackals within its ranks and attract such people."

A good beginning has been made. But that is only the beginning. There is a long way yet to go. And, sooner or later, but certainly before the next general election, Dr Rowley is going to have put his new vision on the line by calling fresh internal elections under the new one-man, one-vote system.

Only thus would real legitimacy, for himself and for his new vision, be truly restored in the eyes of the country.

• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator

on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.

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