Tuesday, February 20, 2018

COP coalition muscle

Lent is over and like the Congress of the People (COP) we going down San Fernando. The issue is settled. The COP has scored a rare victory within the People's Partnership and the embattled mayor will move to safer ground. Still this was an odd squabble. It revealed the crassness of our politics, the Partnership's grab for power and the challenges of holding on to it.

Like Calypso Rose in 1977, Port of Spain was too jammed for the COP leader's comfort and San Fernando offered more leg-room. But the oddity of the squabble started with the COP leader describing the San Fernando Mayor's position as part of the "assets of the COP".

Apparently in the Fyzabad carve-up, that elected office was parceled out to the COP, an affront to the city's 1996 Standing Orders. Back-office deals involving public office and the insistence on them as matters of contract are repulsive to good governance. They are no different in character from the attempt to sell Obama's former US senate seat, for which Rod Blagogevich will spend 14 years in prison.

Even before the Coudray-crossover the COP had plenty philosophical ground to challenge its co-parties in the Partnership. Only on rare occasions the party's leadership raised its voice. Even when the party questioned the Government, the COP MPs remained silent or sided with the Government. Some of that was a consequence of collective responsibility, but much of it was self-preservation. Maybe in the COP back-office there is still a party which is distinguishable from its UNC parent, but in Government the COP has morphed.

Much of the COP's concessions of character are rooted in the 2007 failure to land a seat. With impatience for power, in 2010 the COP mapped a shortcut. And as with shortcuts the party's current coordinates suggest that it is lost. The party will be challenged to identify a single slice of progress the Partnership government has made or embarked upon, notwithstanding a brazen State of Emergency, a curfew and billions already spent. The party will also find the same-old, same-old political playbook inconsistent with its self-styled new politics.

Contrary to this new politics, the COP's stance on the position of mayor for the city of San Fernando is straight out of the old playbook. The Standing Orders of the City of San Fernando provide a process for the selection of a mayor, deputy mayor and various other officials. It is all done by secret ballot amongst the city's councillors and aldermen. While political parties traditionally bind their representatives on the voting in these municipal bodies, the Fyzabad carve-up is still a subversion of the city's Standing Orders and undemocratic. The big problem for the COP is that when it exhorted Fyzabad as a principle, it was really insisting that a piece of San Fernando democracy remain hog-tied.

It is even worse for San Fernando that such a deal was struck even before the two elections which produced a Partnership government and a UNC/COP majority in San Fernando. The city's voters and their representatives never had a chance to pick a mayor based on objective factors, a matter which is also at odds with the COP's new politics.

And the COP's insistence on a change in mayor confirmed that the party was more concerned with the allocation of assets than with putting the best people in positions of leadership. Defying all it has claimed as its political brand, the COP's principle is that a UNC mayor is unacceptable, notwithstanding competence and performance as mayor. If the COP gets trapped in insularity and this game of political twister, it will lose even more face and friends.

The COP leadership needs to consider the most important lessons of this squabble within the Partnership. First, the party was lucky on this issue, but will face further challenges in Government. It must align national interests to its own more consistently and when the party behaves in an insular fashion it must do so in defence of matters of importance to the public. Given the history, the COP has a critical role in a Partnership Government which will not survive without its support. Mathematically the UNC can remain in government, but will not do so successfully.

Second, the reality is that the Government is the COP and UNC. TOP provides comfort but is not indispensable. Two Partnership parties have no seats in the House and little hope of getting one in an open contest. So unprepared was the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) that its leader ran as a UNC candidate. So healthy was the reward for his troubles, he's left the MSJ to paddle on its own. The National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) created strong political and social consciousness and its real success is its impact on individuals who ended up in other political parties. Without taking away from Ambassador Daaga's contribution, his current Government cameo is a risk of losing more than gaining for his cause. For both NJAC and the MSJ, this association with governing parties is merely a learning experience which will bring them little political luck.

The most important lesson for the COP is that it should be lifted by the prospects which lie ahead. Within a weak cause riddled with rotten politics it has successfully engaged coalition muscle. In advancing a case for "the trust of the hundreds of thousands of people who voted for the Partnership", it defended political insularity and won. After San Fernando, deeper success means that the COP must raise its tempo across parties and throughout the country.

Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and university lecturer