When we talk of flawed institutions in our country we hardly mention our two oldest political parties, the People’s National Movement and the United National Congress. But these run our country. Yet there is an opaqueness about their affairs. We only know about them in a general sense, their support, leaders and key figures. This is unacceptable 50 years after Independence. We need greater transparency here, and this must concern not only members but every citizen. The parties are public property and must be subjected to intense scrutiny. It is the absence of public supervision that allows our political parties to misbehave in government.
Do they adhere to their constitutions? Do they have elections on time? Who supervises these elections? Are they conducted according to the rules of the party? Basdeo Panday complains of unfair practices in his leadership contest with Mrs Persad-Bissessar and says he will only contest again if he is sure of fair elections. But is fairness guaranteed?
Also, in the PNM, when Keith Rowley lost to Manning in 1995, he raised credible questions about the validity of some delegates who voted, and when Pennelope Beckles-Robinson lost narrowly to Franklyn Khan, she wanted a recount but couldn’t get it. This is most unsatisfactory and my own view is that internal party elections should be conducted under the supervision of the Elections and Boundaries Commission.
Indeed the parties should also be accountable to the EBC in their financial operations. Annual audited accounts must be presented, with penalties for lack of compliance. We must know the source of funding, how much from individuals, the percentage from business corporations. This is the way to ensure the people own their political parties, without which, our democracy is threatened. Corruption will escalate and more section 34s will surface.
The PNM is being modernised, with revolutionary constitutional moves to one man one vote; removal of the political leader’s veto in choosing candidates; reduction in term limits for the political leader and others; and full autonomy for the party’s Tobago Council. I have already congratulated the entire leadership on these profound developments and paid special tribute to Keith Rowley, saying he “made history by being the first PNM leader to deliberately reduce his power, a rare act of selflessness in our politics.”
So here we are for the first time in almost 60 years with a challenger to a sitting political leader of the PNM, and coming from outside the parliamentary arm as well. This bodes well. As I predicted, already the nation is attracted and engaged.
The buzz is everywhere; the media is hooked. And the battle is only just joined. There will be commentary for weeks before and afterwards. The PNM will dominate the news for months when previously its elections were predictable and quickly forgotten.
The PNM is increasingly in stark contrast to the UNC. Whilst it is confident enough to accommodate a challenge to Dr Rowley who led it to three consecutive victories, the UNC is in the doldrums, unable to shake off a leader who lost four elections in one year. It demonstrates how constitutional changes by themselves do not suffice for transformation.
The UNC instituted one man one vote 20 years ago, but today it is stuck with a leader who could prove to be a liability in 2015. The culture of maximum leadership and timid membership persist.
In this internal elections, the PNM has an excellent opportunity to make a leap forward and in the process demonstrate it is worthy of being the next government of this country. Dr Rowley and Penny must tell us how they are going to improve the party. Today, like the UNC, the PNM remains trapped in its tribal base. Dr Rowley and Ms Beckles-Robinson must tell us how they are going to widen the membership. And no bland statements of intent. I want to see them in action in this enterprise, each travelling throughout the country and soulfully preaching the gospel of greater inclusiveness, making traditional opponents of the PNM feel welcome in the party.
They must also tell us how they are going to return the PNM to its membership and the common man generally. It is the only way to protect the national patrimony from unscrupulous political investors who finance election campaigns and, after victory, feast to fatness, leaving ordinary members as beasts of burden to graze in the commons.
We must therefore know the contenders’ positions on campaign finance and procurement reform. Our democracy is already under threat by the moneyed class in Trinidad and Tobago.
And most importantly, we must know how leader and challenger will ensure the PNM rises from its present intellectual torpor. Earlier I called for the party to discard “the old culture of stultification disguised as discipline; loyalty that demands uniformity and kills creativity; and insecurity that sees treachery in every dissenting voice or difference of opinion.”
The PNM must not be a party of choir children, singing from the same hymn sheet, praising God and the captain, even when the ship is sinking. The party must not be in lockstep with the limited mind of just one individual. Debate must range at all levels of the party.
The many dead constituency executives and party groups must come to life; and the general council must be an open intellectual space for ideas not mechanics, substance not sycophancy, where direction is determined not by one man’s intuitions, preferences or messianic impulses, but by vigorous and fearless analysis that would establish a new tradition in the party, inspiring the future.
If either Dr Rowley or Ms Beckles-Robinson lifts the PNM to new heights, they will not only win the present contest but the battle for the country. This is the opportunity.
• Ralph Maraj is a playwright and former government minister