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Another Peep Behind The Balisier

By Selwyn Ryan

 The People’s National Movement (PNM) is actively involved in the process of democratising  procedures for electing its party officials. Come May 18th, its political leader and other officials will be chosen on a “one person, one vote” basis and not by the delegate mode as was the case from its foundation. 

Questions are being asked as to whether the reforms will make  any fundamental difference to the  practices and ethos of the party? Will it  fall victim to what German political scientist Roberto Michels called the “Iron Law of Oligarchy?” Michel  argued that despite whatever efforts  are made to democratise them, mass political parties and trade unions develop features  which make them resistant to democratic restructuring.

According to Michel, as parties grow, they need to adopt certain practices which eventually cause them to become oligarchic. “Who says organisation, says oligarchy.” Leaders have various ways of acquiring and maintaining hegemony. Inevitably, they capture the party’s means of communication, its funds, as well as other strategic resources. The leader is also likely to possess the oratorical skills which enable him/her to  overawe  the rank and file. All these and other factors keep challengers at bay, unless the organisation splits and new elites emerge. Women are particularly at a disadvantage in these arrangements.

This long preamble is intended to raise questions as to whether  Williams’ PNM was a victim of Michel’s doctrine  and whether anything would really change for the better regardless of who wins. One might also ask whether the structure of power in the Westminster system inevitably inhibits the spawning of genuine democratic politics? Can one change party behaviour without a parallel change in the state system? Can one escape Michel’s law? Is a clean simple intraparty election an oxymoron?

With the end of the cold war, the world was seemingly becoming fundamentally democratised. Political parties everywhere were jumping on the democratic bandwagon. The “people”were at the gates. Good governance was the new demand. Trinidad enlisted in the movement. Some elements, including the incumbent Prime Minister however opted to retain the old  centralist model. Rowley was among those who believed otherwise, viz, that the time had come to open up and diversify the party. It was felt that the PNM had outgrown the straitjacket in  which Williams had left  it . The major question now is whether the changes could be effected without destabilising the party. Examples of what could happen were to be seen in the experience of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) and the United National Congress (UNC). One recalls Carlos John’s warning that “goonda politics and one man, one vote”don’t sit well together.”

 The Rowley-inspired campaign to   change the ethos of the party involved a decision to stop wearing the party tie during official meetings and in Parliament. The balisier tie was an emotionally valued party icon, and many opposed the change as being gratuitous and unnecessary. But the Rowleyites argued that the environment  had changed and the PNM had to be competitive. One had to distinguish between what was appropriate for use in party-related contexts and what was suitable for  official spaces.

 The mode of electing party officials remains an issue for some elements and may  wellresurface after the May elections,particularly if the Rowleyites are ambushed and lose. It is also said that it was inadvisable to schedule intraparty elections  on the eve of general elections, since accidents do happen. For now, all we can say is that party reform,much like church reform, is not an easy undertaking, and that doctrinal and other divisions inside parties is often more intense than the divisions between them. Often, personalities use these issues to maintain their positions in the organisation

The decision to replace the delegate system by a “one person, one vote,”system raised contingent issues. It was assumed by some that there was an up-to-date sanitised membership list. The available list, like the national voter’s list,  included persons who had died, migrated, or had changed party membership. According to Rowley’s estimate, half the membership had died. There were also those who were sociological members who considered themselves members of the tribe. There were also persons who routinely  voted for or who had worked for the party over the years, but who had not or could not pay the annual membership fee of $96, in part because the party did not have any  system in place to deal with the management of regular membership dues. 

The question then was to determine whether to exclude all these unfinancial persons or use the opportunity to bring them back in the party. As Rowley told those who  insisted on limiting membership to those who were financial, one was not organizing a fund- raising party.

It was eventually decided  to include all party members,and that to do otherwise would be inadvisable,impractical,impolitic and counterproductive. 

The decision to allow all party members to vote raised questions as to who was and who was not a member. What mechanisms would be used  to discriminate between bona fide members and opportunist members  who joined the party not because they supported it,but because they wanted to injure politically one or the other of the two leaders. 

I understand that many persons did attempt to join the PNM not because they genuinely supported Penny, but because they wanted Rowley to lose. Their assumption was that Rowley was the proximate and more serious enemy whom it was important to defeat. The report in this regard is that some 3,000 “persons” applied to become members in what was clearly an attempt on the part of the UNC to “crash”the PNM’s party. 

One assumes that at the end of the day, the list will not be “clean as a whistle,” but that the PNM will benefit from the exercise. List cleaning and computerisation should be an important first step in the process of  providing the Election and Boundaries Commission with the information needed to upgrade its operations. 

—To be continued

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