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Disaggregating the Tobago electorate

By Selwyn Ryan

Liberal political theory regards democracy as being about fair elections and the primacy of majorities. A country is said to be democratic if its government is chosen by a competitive struggle for the people's vote. The model assumes freedom of the media and interest groups which aggregate the interests of the people who then choose which of the competing groups or leaders has secured a mandate to rule. The choices are assumed to be rationally made. Race is seen as being "irrational" and therefore not appropriate as a basis for democratic political choice. This was not always the case. It was in fact a point of view that was held by Jewish sociologists acting through UNESCO in the years following the holocaust. It was said that the latter threw out the baby with the bath water.

In practice, however, many societies still regard race and tribe as one of the bases of electoral analysis..The United States is of course a prime example of this phenomenon. Most pollsters know how important it is for the canvassers to know the social demographics of the electorate. Race features prominently in these calculations. We here in Trinidad do the same thing and we are indeed being hypocritical when we pretend otherwise.

In our analyses of the THA election, our attention has quite appropriately focussed on those voters who emphatically endorsed the PNM. We have ignored the 33 per cent (the equivalent of four PR seats) who bucked the trend. What drove them to behave in this way? Were they concerned about "issues" and if so, what were their issues? A shocked UNC ascribed TOP's defeat to race and fear.

Not so, replied Orville London. The Chief Secretary argued that Tobago has alternated its vote frequently and that issues always matter. As he put it, nobody can predict how a THA election is going to pan out. History has shown Tobagonians always vote on issues. We cannot predict.

But what is an issue? Was it disgust with the PP's governance performance in Trinidad & Tobago as the PNM claims?

Were the PNM voters disenchanted with Ashworth Jack and all the things he seemed to represent?

Were they bothered by the seeming absence of a sense of propriety or "fairness", as London asserts?

Were they turned off by what they regarded as a brazen attempt to "mamaguy" them by promising the moon for lunch and the stars for desert?

Did some voters merely vote in accordance with village tradition. It is a well known Tobago phenomenon that some villages vote traditionally for one party and that a neighbouring village does otherwise. Also of interest were those voters who endorsed the PNM out of continued loyalty to the party of Dr Eric Williams even though he had "boofed" them up in 1976.

One assumes that there were also many who voted for the PNM because they were grateful for the patronage which they had received from that party in the past and wanted to ensure that they received it in the future. They allegedly took money, T-shirts, and whatever was being distributed, and gave their vote to the PNM.

There were indeed some who voted for reasons having to do with race and fear of the other, but it is possible that in their minds, there were other defensible reasons for them to do so. Some voters would have aggregated or disaggregated the operative factors in various ways and would unconsciously assign varying weights to each motive.

We could also assume that some voters were victims of what psychologists term "cognitive dissonance", ie, they were simultaneously holding inconsistent views strongly, and resolved it either by not voting, voting whimsically, or by switching at the last moment to one or the other alternative. In sum it is hard to say why people voted one way or another merely by looking at the aggregate behaviour of the group. One would have to drill deeper to get meaningful answers.

The floating voter and the switchers are often assumed to be the most rational beings in democratic elections in the sense that they allegedly weigh the "issues" carefully before casting their vote for one "issue" or another. The reality is that many of them may not indeed be the most enlightened and switch T-shirts for seemingly whimsical reasons.

As we indicated above, most analysts have focused their attention on the victors in this particular election. Let us for a moment focus on the 33 per cent who resisted the unrushing tsunami and voted TOP.

Did the TOP voters make their decision on the basis of "issues", ie, the goodies that the UNC leadership promised? Did they take seriously TOP's offer of liberation and self-government.

Did they think that supporting TOP would yield returns that were greater or more ample than what the PNM appeared to be offering? Were they reacting to the charge that the PNM was a do-nothing party? Were some of them more Trinidadian than Tobagonian, and were voting on the basis of Trinicentric concerns?

Was the Tobago electorate split between those who were authentic "ah we boys" and those who were relative "newcomers"? Did family and village lead others from nearby villages to vote for the rival party with no concern for issues other than village rivalry?

How does an outsider party which the PNM was, transform itself into an insider party led by an insider? Why did people who in the past were hostile to the PNM, now vote emotionally for the PNM which had now become an insider party? How does an outsider become an insider?

One recalls the many, many years when it was said that the PNM was "dead" in Tobago only to see it rise again and prevail once more?

Just how did that happen?

What will the future hold for the TOP? Will it rise again or will it go to the ground as did Hochoy Charles' Platform For Truth?

What of all the other small parties in Tobago? Would they come together and challenge the PNM on the self-government issue?

How will these issues play out?

The election results have forced us to retake a closer look at our coalition issues and our claim to be a society in which race does not matter much.

While it is undeniable that our society has a great deal of which we could be proud, we hide and conceal a lot about how our constituent peoples relate to each other when the shades are pulled.

We are hypocrites in much of what we do and say. The struggle among the groups is silent and civil, but it is there. The Tobago events have their reproductions in many Trinidad communities.

Groups circle the wagons and refrain from going against or stigmatising the tribe. We saw this in the recent marches which were staged in protest of Section 34.

Jack Warner was right when he noted that the march was for all intents and purposes, mono-ethnic.

We need to be more open about some of these issues and not pretend that Sat and Jack are the only elephants in the room.

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