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No more staleness

By Ralph Maraj

At the time of writing the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 has not been passed but seems likely to succeed. If it does, the sun will not stop shining. Indeed it could remove the staleness from the politics of Trinidad and Tobago. Parties will have to deal with a new dynamic. It will certainly reduce political hitchhiking and challenge smaller parties to carve and sustain their own place in the sun.
With the run-off, the next election will likely not produce massive coalitions, like the NAR and the Partnership, before polling day.
The PNM’s DNA already rejects accommodations and, as the bill reveals, now the UNC wants to expand on its own, unshackled by demands of lesser partners.
So the smaller parties, COP, MSJ, ILP have their work cut out. They can get together in a united third force or each try to carve their own terrain, earn their share of the vote, and be in a position to bargain in return for their support in any run-off.
If they are serious about their various visions and policies, they must with passion and commitment persuade the population they will be the best government for the country, which is the claim people make when they form political parties.
And smaller parties shouldn’t be daunted by the challenges of standing alone. Political hitchhiking has always destroyed third forces in this country.
They should learn from the experiences of the ONR and its reincarnation, the COP. Both had the courage in 1981 and 2007 to challenge the stale status quo and provide the electorate with a genuine attempt at a multi-racial alternative to the tribal UNC and PNM. They got 90,000 and 150,000 votes respectively and confirmed a place for a third force in our politics.
But both the ONR and the COP nipped themselves in the bud when, respectively, they made the error of joining the NAR in 1986 and the Partnership in 2010, to be subsumed, suffocated and eventually disappear. They lacked endurance and complete conviction. Had they truly believed in their purpose and built on their own, they would not have had to endure the ignominious dying, now the plight of the COP.
Of course they needed the environment to build, one that recognised their indispensable role and legitimate aspirations in our plural society, a system that included them in the process of governance.
First-past-the-post brutally denied them their place in the sun and forced them to suffer the indignity of shotgun marriages and hodgepodge alliances that abused and hollowed them out.
So the smaller parties now must lead the charge in calling for proportional representation which the Government says it will bring. All parties, civil society, the entire country must immediately start discussing PR which is the next train coming down the track.
As I have indicated, the UNC hierarchy now wants to be free of the irritants that come with accommodations.
They want to win where they have not won before, like in Diego Martin, and even if they maintain the Partnership it will be as a unitary party where the identities of smaller parties will virtually disappear and where candidates will be determined not by his/her party but based on the individual’s appeal in a particular constituency.
It will continue to be UNC power at the top. So the UNC will have its cake and eat it. No self-respecting party will tolerate that for long, so new formations are likely.
If it plays its cards right, the PNM could be the major beneficiary of the run-off arrangement. Given the alleged unpopularity of the Government, our oldest party has a real chance of winning more seats than the UNC/Partnership before any run-offs in the next general election.
This would put the party in a strong position in any further constituency contests since it will be the new government before the run-offs take place. It could then end up with an even stronger majority than before.
But the PNM must develop the flexibility to negotiate, partner with other parties. The “win alone, lose alone” approach is out of step with the evolving reality of local politics.
The party must also discard its antiquated approach to proportional representation and determine the variant that best suits its purpose.
The Government is coming with PR. Big change is on the way. The run-off is the forerunner, the promise of an end to the staleness of our politics in Trinidad and Tobago.
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