Saturday, December 16, 2017

PNM elections: to hell in a hand basket?

In a series of articles earlier this month, I signalled that there were glaring organisational weaknesses in the PNM which were not being addressed. I questioned the need for internal elections at this time and I demonstrated the leadership’s failure to reorient the party to prepare for the challenges ahead. Rather than address the message everyone wanted to kill the messenger, complaining that I was only causing “trouble”. It pains me to make these observations, especially since I was among those who helped to make Dr Keith Rowley the political leader, but they must be made if we want to preserve the democratic principles and the party.

The headlines in the press last weekend only confirmed my warnings on the unpreparedness of the party for one man one vote. They point to what can only be construed as a thinly veiled attempt to rig the membership/voters list by the incumbent leadership team. A Guardian editorial gave a dignified and restrained comment, making the point that the candidates should not be in a position to influence the composition of the voters list. But this is exactly what is taking place

What we have is a clear attempt to subvert the process under the pretext that other political parties were attempting to gain membership. Rubbish!

Since November, membership forms had become scarce. Pennelope Beckles-Robinson complained bitterly at central executive meetings and at the general council to no avail. While one can understand the need to be cautious, it is difficult not to conclude that forms were distributed only to those constituency chairmen who were friendly to the political leader. Imagine, 11,000 new members for one side and 7,000 rejects for the Beckles-Robinson team! It is of course pure coincidence that the chairman of the membership committee just happens to be a former Diego Martin West constituency chairman, Diego Martin West being Dr Rowley’s constituency. Add to that a narrative that says the UNC was trying to infiltrate the PNM. It is all too convenient.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the “independent” elections committee says in a press release that it is yet to receive a single written complaint on the conduct of the elections. The committee does not say how many letters it has received or how many have gone unanswered or how many have been acknowledged. One such letter dated March 18, unanswered and unacknowledged to date, has asked for specifics on the elections as follows:

1. Election rules;

2. Details of the voting process;

3. A listing of the voting stations;

4. Details of the supervisory committee that will supervise the voting process;

5. Details of how members will be allocated to voting stations;

6. Details of the documentation (Passport/DP/ID card) to be used by party members during the voting process;

7. Listing of returning officers for the election and how they will be selected;

8. A copy of the up-to-date list for party members;

9. Facilities for scrutineers.

Since there is less than a month before the election, is it unreasonable to expect that this information should already be available? The answer must be “yes”. So why has the committee not acknowledged or responded?

At the March central executive meeting (first week of March), in response to queries from the floor, Ashton Ford, the party’s general secretary and a candidate on the Rowley slate, in an apparent oversight, indicated to those present that the membership/voters list would not be available to candidates. To date, the committee has followed the directions of the general secretary. So much for the committee’s independence.

Elections are on May 18 and it is expected that candidates should be able to access the membership list by now. Instead they are being told they can inspect each constituency list at the respective constituencies. If that were not bad enough, the lists are now devoid of any contact details: no postal addresses, no telephone numbers, no e-mail addresses. So how is a candidate expected to canvass voters? Would the EBC be allowed to get away with this in an election? Definitely not! These elections as presently organised are neither free nor fair.

One man one vote was the platform of Dr Rowley’s modernisation effort. But it is clear that the elections “procedure” is being developed on the fly and not as part of any deep process. To date that effort is shallow and amounts to nothing more than a PR exercise designed to give the appearance of change. It lacks professionalism and intellectual rigour. This is not an example of a party ready for government.

Rather than developing a stronger democratic base, the whole effort has been to cement the power and prestige of the leader. After all of Dr Rowley’s very public complaints about Patrick Manning’s leadership, what we are seeing is something infinitely worse. I can only conclude that having waited for 14 years to become the leader, his only priority is to stay in power. Could we expect any better if he were prime minister?

The party is not prepared for these elections. Elections aren’t due for another year according to the constitution. The leader has not vacated office. A 90-day postponement to allow a proper process to be developed would make sense. So why not do that? But then again I don’t expect Dr Rowley to listen to good sense, in or out of office.

• Louis Lee Sing is a PNM member and former mayor of Port of Spain.

—The Winford James column returns next week.