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After ole mas in Tobago

By Sunity Maharaj

We can see just how far the politics still has to go when, despite the monumental bungling of the Tobago campaign, not a voice is raised to demand the resignation of the leaders of the People's Partnership's THA campaign.

This was a campaign in reverse. The strategy not only failed to secure new ground but lost everything with which it had entered the fray.

In the tradition of Westminster democracy, responsible politics would hold the leadership accountable. But not in the top-down politics of the colony, where the culture of central power breeds leadership that accounts to none and where the rank-and-file is content to be relegated to the role of propping up power–even to the point of self-destruction.

This is the colonial affliction with which our politics remains cursed 50 years after independence. From the People's National Movement (PNM) of 1956 to the People's Partnership of 2013, no political party in government has been able to save itself by rising to the responsibility of making leadership accountable. And so it has been in Tobago, too, where the People's Partnership's has latched on to Hilton Sandy's xenophobic scare-mongering as a scapegoat for its comprehensive defeat in the THA elections.

As pre-campaign polls had found, the People's Partnership went into the THA campaign already defeated. The only achievement of its campaign strategy was to dig its Tobago partner deeper into defeat.

In the end, the TOP lost for the very same reason that the MSJ had left the People's Partnership and for the same reason that the COP and NJAC have been reduced to functionaries in the Persad-Bissessar administration: The People's Partnership is no partnership at all but yet another masquerader content to milk the old political culture for all it's worth.

This is hardly news to the national electorate. But on January 21, it was Tobago's chance to declare that it, too, had recognised the UNC's obliteration of its representative in the Government and that it was prepared to rise in its own defence- even if this required shelving its reservations about a fourth term for Orville London and a 12-0 victory for the PNM.

The Partnership is giving Hilton Sandy's Calcutta ignorance far too much credit for its defeat. Far from triggering any stampede to the PNM, Sandy had merely tapped into Tobagonian anxiety that, with the TOP hollowed out by the UNC, there was now nothing standing between itself and Trinidad hegemony. For Tobago, the ethnicity of Trinidad hegemony has never been important. Williams, Chambers and Manning have been as roundly despatched as Panday and Persad-Bissessar.

With so much experience to guide her, it is incredible that Persad-Bissessar's judgment on Tobago could have been so flawed.

This is no great personal deficiency on her part; it merely registers her continuing inability to break free of the old colonial political culture of divide and rule.

Today, as we prepare for the second half of the Partnership Government's five-year term, the zero sum condition of our politics couldn't be more stark.

A recent poll finding that 53 per cent would vote the same way as they had in 2010 was glibly embraced as endorsing the status quo. But what about the 47 per cent who would not? Where have they gone and how does their departure change the current configuration? While this wasn't explored, it is a safe bet that even if some have switched sides, most are in no particular camp, waiting to see and exploring options, including the fearful option of giving up on the political process.

In this fluid phase, with the political situation wide open, any number can play.

For Persad-Bissessar the die would already seem to be cast. Her one option for retrieving the situation by returning to the Fyzabad Accord is no longer viable. She has already committed herself too deeply to the path taken from the start. So committed, in fact, that even sacrificing a powerful head right before the next polls might not be enough to surmount the credibility issues.

All of this will not be lost on her rivals inside the cabinet, even if they, including her once-anointed successor, may already be too compromised to mount a future challenge. The COP, neutered and scared by the prospect of political extinction without office, continues to tread water in open seas with no land in sight, hoping for a miraculous turn of the tide.

For the Government, the THA election should have been the opening act of the second half of its term. Now, it might prefer to discount it as the final act of the first half of its term, hoping it can regain its footing to begin a new chapter after Carnival.

On T&T's calendar of seasons, the end of Carnival marks the beginning of the new year of politics.

The UNC would have hoped to carry a THA victory all the way to a local government triumph in July and, from there, to build a beach-head to the 2015 general election.

But the Tobago outcome has upended that. A wounded UNC will alter the political dynamics both within the Partnership and without. One likely casualty of the THA outcome might very well be local government elections, presumed until now to be scheduled in July. Constitutional reform might be just the right obstacle to that path.

Outside the corridors of office, the ground is being prepared for the post-Carnival campaign.

In political terms, two years is still an eternity during which much can happen to change the current configuration. Political instability is not to be ruled out although, as the Section 34 imbroglio showed, the country has the capacity to build solidarities across the political divide when it matters most. And as Tobago has also demonstrated, it can see right through the opportunism that respects neither individual nor institution in its crass boast of having "court clothes".

With the country now relaxing into Carnival and preparing to play itself, the hope remains that after the ole mas will come some introspection with the chance of new politics.

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