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Further reflections on run-off proposal

By Michael Harris

Constitutional proposals cannot be assessed in a vacuum. No proposal can be declared to be good or bad without reference to the context—the environment in which it is to be implemented. Thus it is with the run-off vote proposal. In some other context, such a proposal might well be the best thing since sliced bread.

In our political culture and given our political history it may well be, and is certainly intended to be, a dagger in the heart of any hope of a better political future. Let us understand clearly what our political culture is and let us not be “nice” about it. Almost from the very beginning of our history as an independent nation, our politics took an exceedingly unfortunate turn.

Political and electoral contestation came to rest on a foundation of ethnic polarisation and racial division. From this fact emerged a “two-party” system in which both parties mobilised their support on the basis of ethnic and racial affiliation.. We could explore what factors and circumstances gave rise to such a development, but for present purposes it is not necessary.

What is very important to note is that as a result of such racial polarisation in our politics it has been exceedingly difficult (and it may in fact be impossible) for us to build for ourselves structures of good governance or to achieve good government. The reasons for this are not difficult to determine. In the first place since the parties come to us and solicit our support on the basis of ethnic or racial solidarity, and we, in fact, give our support on that basis, then we cannot demand of them; and they have little incentive to deliver good performance when they are in government.

Moreover, when a party wins office based upon the support of one race, or one ethnic grouping, as opposed to the other race or ethnic grouping, that party has neither incentive nor interest in making government policies which assist that other race or group. And in any case no government can be effective if it is mistrusted by half the population. But it is not to be supposed that even as the majority of the population went along with this politics of racial polarisation that it escaped their attention and understanding that it was precisely this type of politics which kept them locked in prisons of crapaud politics, indifferent public service, rampant political corruption and their own utter impotence to do anything to challenge the political authorities.

As such, and for almost as long as the politics of racial polarisation has dominated the political system, there has been a determined effort by sections of the population to find and to craft a way out of the futility of our political culture. It is this persistent attempt to find a different mode of operation, to institute a political system which would rise above the vulgarity of race, which has given to us some of the most intense and creative moments in our political history.

As far back as 1970 NJAC led thousands of black urban youth in an eruption of protest against a black PNM government. And right from the start there was the recognition, the instinctively clear comprehension, that we could not move forward if we could not defeat the bogey of racial polarisation. So the cry went up from thousands of young black voices; “Africans and Indians unite”.

Since then we have had numerous attempts and interventions, all of them seeking to find a new way which would transcend the racial divide. We have had the Liberal Party under Peter Farquhar. We have had the ULF, which was a marriage of oil and sugar. We have had Tapia, the ONR, the NAR and the COP.

And with each attempt the understanding of the people grew. So that even while they were making all these attempts to forge a new and better way they understood clearly that even though they had to live with the two old race-based parties that they could not allow either of them free rein. So, ever since 1981, without legislation or constitutional amendment, the people have imposed their own term limits on prime ministers and on parties in government. And all the while they strove mightily to build the new politics.

Over the years their numbers grew and their power grew until by 2010 it had become very clear that neither of the two old race-based parties could ever win an election again if they were opposed by the third force. In 2010 the UNC, as the party in opposition, benefitted from the support of the third force. Four years later it is very clear that it no longer has that support. The run-off proposal is therefore their attempt to maintain their hold on office by killing off the growing power of the third force before it becomes dominant.
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