As the country evolves, the battle for power will be between coalitions and not parties. We are fairly advanced along that road with one of the main parties, the United National Congress (UNC), always needing a coalition, except once, to gain office. It is also clear the days of the People’s National Movement (PNM) fighting alone are ending, for one finds it difficult to foresee our oldest party regaining government without a partnership with others, unless of course its rivals are in complete disarray, which is also very possible given the shambolic state of the present administration. But the clash of coalitions as an entrenched feature of our politics is inevitable and could start as early as 2015.
This is most welcome, given our traditional political polarisation based on race and from which financiers and some jefes of PNM and the UNC have been the major beneficiaries, to the country’s detriment, race-based politics allowing administrations to escape the rigorous accountability that obtains in developed democracies. The inevitability of coalition battles also points to the growing importance of the ever-increasing middle sector of floating voters, unaligned and independent, who have been a major contributor to the frequent changes in administrations since 1986. It signals a maturing electorate and a deepening of our democracy.
It is a stale view that says because coalitions can be unstable, they must be avoided at all cost. That is the position of those wedded to winner-take-all, one-man, one-party rule; totally unsuited to our diverse society. For it is the very “inherent instability” of coalitions that demands and advances mature political management which has been in short supply in this country, a deficiency that has brought the collapse of all governments after 1986, coalitions and single-party administrations. When parties must habitually work together, they are forced to be flexible, to learn the art of negotiation and compromise, to jettison the messianic complex and to practise politics capable of weaving differences into a workable whole.
In Germany, the most prosperous and stable country in Europe, coalition governments are a fact of life. Indeed, given its history, that country’s constitution has been deliberately engineered to prevent the dominance of any one party or leader, though it did produce outstanding, long-serving chancellors like Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl.
Even today, the highly popular and apparently unassailable Angela Merkel will need a coalition, possibly with the main opposition party, if she is to form a government after the impending elections. In Israel, under constant existential threat but with a strong though fractious democracy, every election produces a coalition government; and in the UK, now run by a Conservative/Liberal coalition, with the declining quality in the leadership of both the Labour and Tories, it is possible neither major party will rule as in the days of Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher. And just a few days ago, Australia elected a coalition government after the six-year administration of the Labour Party.
So bring on coalition politics thoroughly in Trinidad and Tobago. It is the path to greater participation by the people in the politics. It is an important step to strengthening our dysfunctional, anachronistic Parliament, which now has no capacity to act as a “fierce watchdog” on the government. With coalitions battling it out, close results are more likely, reducing the overpowering strength of government which has inflicted so much disaster on this country since independence.
Coalitions would be more inclined toward fundamental reform of our Parliament and the adoption of proportional representation (PR), which gives a chance for all parties to be represented in Parliament. Present members of the Partnership all favour PR, while the PNM, accustomed to the “winning alone, losing alone” approach, finds it difficult to entertain the idea of a coalition, far less the system of proportional representation which Eric Williams saw in the Wooding commission as “a dagger aimed at the heart of the PNM”. Now Dr Rowley sees the baby step of using PR to determine aldermen as a “dagger aimed at the heart of local government”. The PNM should be warned that if it does not adjust away from its hoary rigidity, it will dwindle into an irrelevant anachronism in the politics of the country.
So what are the likely coalition formations? The main players will be the PNM, UNC, Congress of the People (COP), Independent Labour Party (ILP) and Movement for Social Justice (MSJ). The most plausible partner for the PNM seems to be the MSJ, while the UNC and the COP seem destined to be joined at the hip, notwithstanding current theatrical displays of independence by the latter. The wild card is the ILP. Where will Jack Warner go? Wherever he ends up, he will want to be the leader because his goal is to be Prime Minister.
Keith Rowley and the PNM will certainly not yield leadership to Warner, though an increasing number of PNM supporters would readily accept it. Indeed, as forecasted, Jack is already drawing much of his support from the PNM heartland. But Jack is wily enough to know a coalition with the PNM is not likely to take him to the Prime Minister’s chair unless he has the support of the Indo and mixed community.
Will he be able to replicate his Chaguanas West triumph in other constituencies? Indeed will he win his seat without the UNC in a national election when the competition is for power and tribal pre-eminence? These questions must be on his mind. He could be seriously contemplating leadership of the Partnership for the next election battle.
But will the UNC and Kamla give way? We are clearly heading into a period of creative turbulence, where, for the first time since independence, the people are leading and the politicians must follow. Bring on the clash of coalitions.
• Ralph Maraj is a playwright and
former government minister.