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Dr Rowley'scoalitional gambit

By Michael Harris

Last week I had indicated that the PNM's apparent radical reversal of its long standing position on the issue of coalition arrangements with other groups and parties was, potentially, the most significant development there has been in the politics of our country for a long time and I promised that I would explain why I considered this to be so. Since my article appeared last week there has been a development which indicates that the radical reversal of the PNM's position on the issue of coalitions is no longer just apparent but is now official party policy.

In an interview with Express political reporter, Ria Taitt, Dr Keith Rowley, political leader of the PNM, confirmed this radical shift when he stated that " 'win alone, lose alone' was something that evolved out of somebody's mouth somewhere. It never formed part of the PNM's fundamental doctrine." Given such an emphatic confirmation of the shift in position, it becomes even more imperative that we explore the possible implications and consequences which derive thereof.

Let me begin with a clinical depiction of our electoral system and the forces at play therein. This system is dominated by two large, relatively integrated parties: the PNM and the DLP/UNC on the other. The coherence of these parties derives from the fact that they represent, for the most part, ethnically based constituencies. In the case of the PNM, this constituency is the Afro-Trinidadians, and in the case of the DLP/UNC, the Indo-Trinidadians, particularly the Hindus.

In consequence, issues of politics and government policy and performance never had any salience when it came to the determination of which party would win the election. It was a straight case of race and numbers.

But while it appeared that we operated a two-party electoral system, there has always been a significant mass of persons who were unaligned to either of the two main parties. This largely disaggregated mass was comprised of those persons who belonged to neither of the main ethnic groups or who viewed themselves not in ethnic terms but in terms of class and other interests.

Notwithstanding its disaggregation into several multi-ethnic and multi-interest segments, there have been, over the years, repeated attempts to pull this mass into some semblance of a coherent electoral party. Over the years, starting with the POPPG, then the Liberals under Peter Farquhar, then the Workers and Farmers Party, then with Tapia, the ONR and finally with the COP, we have seen these parties come and go.

Two points must be made about these various attempts to construct a cohesive and sustainable third party. First of all, and notwithstanding the fact that none of these incarnations have ever been successful in winning a seat in the general elections, it is very evident that over the years the size of this third force has grown tremendously.

The second point is that there have always been attempts by these parties to form alliances and coalitions with one of the main parties. We must not forget that the first such attempt was made between DLP and the Workers and Farmers Party which came together to form the ULF in 1975. Since then we have had the NAR in 1986 and now the People's Partnership.

In all these attempts at building coalitional parties the only one of the main parties which has participated has been the DLP/UNC. Partly this has to do with the fact that the PNM was often the party in power but it also has to do with the stated PNM position that it would always "stand alone and fall alone".

The fact that only one of the main political parties was open and amenable to coalitional arrangements has had seriously deleterious consequences for the coalitions which have been formed. For the DLP/UNC, knowing that it was the only game in town, has never been prepared to negotiate seriously with the other smaller parties whether in terms of seats, governmental programmes and policies or, most importantly, decision-making mechanisms.

The result is that in all these coalitional arrangements the DLP/UNC has been by far the dominant partner, doing exactly what it wants, and using the smaller parties as mere electoral window dressing. Further, as in the case of both the ULF and the NAR, the DLP/UNC was prepared to mash up the coalition whenever it no longer served its purpose.

Here we come to the heart of the matter. For if the PNM genuinely enters into the coalitional game then that changes the nature of the game entirely. For whereas before the smaller parties had very little leverage in negotiations with the DLP/UNC, now all the leverage lies with them as both the PNM and the DLP/UNC will have to seriously compete in terms of what they are prepared to negotiate and what they are prepared to put on the table in any such negotiations. Welcome to real politics!

But we must not get ahead of ourselves because, for the PNM, there is still a long way to go between the intention and the act. While the current PNM leadership may see coalitional arrangements as the way to go they still have to bring the party along. We must recall that when PNM chairman Franklin Khan was first elected, he gave an interview in which he suggested that the party would have to consider entering into coalitional arrangements because it would have "difficulty to win a general election when it is a one on one fight. ..."

For making this statement, which was no more or less than a statement of fact, Mr Khan was roundly condemned by elements within the party. These elements are still there. Since Mr Manning's unfortunate illness, one which has clearly put paid to any notion that he could lead the opposition within the party, these forces have gone silent and their silence clearly gives Dr Rowley some room to manoeuvre.

But they are still there, and Dr Rowley is going to find himself sorely tested and in need all the leadership skills he possesses if he is to continue to take the party down this new road. The upcoming Special Convention which is going to debate the issue of 'one man one vote' among other issues will give us a good sense of the magnitude of his struggle.

Until then let us acknowledge that Dr Rowley has taken a bold and imaginative step, one that could redound to the benefit not only of his party but of the country as a whole. As one who has never hesitated to criticise him, I do not now, on this issue, hesitate to congratulate him.

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