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Paying the price of expediency

By Michael Harris

Whatever the outcome of the talks talking place this Monday afternoon among the leaders of the five constituent parties of the People's Partnership Government, we can be certain of one thing. By the end of those talks no resolution would have been found for the real problem at the heart of the Partnership and the real cause of the tensions and fissures which now appear with increasing regularity on the surface of that coalition.

Two weeks ago I was asked by a very senior executive of the Congress of the People (COP) whether I thought the article I had written about the dilemma faced by the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) about its role in the Partnership could apply equally as well to the COP.

My answer was a simple "yes''. But the mere fact that the question was asked was a clear indication that, for that senior executive (and I am certain it applies to other officials in the party as well), there was already a deep concern about the state of the Partnership in general and, in particular, about the COP's place and future in it.

That both the COP and the MSJ should, two years after the Fyzabad Accord, find themselves publicly venting their disquiet and discomfort over their place in the Partnership should not surprise us. The People's Partnership was from the very beginning an exercise in expediency in which all the constituent parties participated.

The COP is no exception. Notwithstanding all the talk of principles and values which is being uttered by COP political leader Prakash Ramadhar over the Marlene Coudray affair, the fact is that principle and values played no part in the decision to join the coalition. Former COP political leader Winston Dookeran, during the last general election campaign, gave the real reason why his party joined the coalition when he admitted that "the COP was dying before the elections were called."

So that the Partnership was from the very beginning, as I described it at the time, "a purely formulaic and mechanistic accommodation of forces, yoked together for the purpose of allocating seats, without vision, without philosophy, without passion and without politics''.

Two other important factors must be added to the equation if we wish to understand the constant and increasing eruptions of conflict within the Partnership. The first is that the coalition parties never put in place any mechanisms and guidelines for on-going discussion, debate and decision-making amongst the constituent elements. The second factor is that the results of the general election gave the UNC, which was always going to be the dominant partner in the coalition, sufficient seats to form a government on its own, without any reliance on the other partners.

The result of these two factors is that it is the Cabinet of the Government which serves as the locus of decision-making for the party, and, in substance, it is a UNC Government and Cabinet. As far as the UNC is concerned, therefore, any favours given to the other parties, whether these be ministerial appointments, board appointments, or as in the instant case, mayoral appointments, are just that, favours, gifts of sufferance, and satisfy any obligations which it might have towards the other parties, arising from the Partnership.

The thinking of the UNC on the matter is that the Partnership was a game of chance into which all the constituent parties entered with eyes wide open, and if the results have favoured the UNC over all the others that is just the luck of the draw and the other parties have no right to complain and no rights to anything other than what the UNC considers they should be given. Viewed through those lenses, the complaints of the COP and the MSJ are nothing but sour grapes or, even worse, political mischief-making.

This mode of thinking is not going to change. No arguments about fairness or values or good government are going to make the slightest bit of difference. The UNC as a party has never evinced the slightest interest in developing and espousing any philosophy of politics or government and that is not going to change. It has never pretended to be interested in putting forward any plans for developing the Partnership as a viable and sustainable party, and that too is not going to change.

Not even an argument that they may lose the next election if the Partnership falls apart is likely to sway the UNC. As far as it is concerned it is in office now, the next elections are three years away and when that time comes it will say anything, do anything and make any deal that might help to keep it in office. But only when that time comes.

It is against this background that it is possible to say that today's discussions among the political leaders will lead to no resolution of the real problem. So the real question is what are the COP and the MSJ going to do from here on in?

In some respects both parties face the same dilemma. No matter how uncomfortable they are, no matter how slighted they feel, there are real and tangible benefits derived from being in the Government and it is not easy to contemplate discarding such benefits for the real difficulties and hardships involved in opposition politics.

But for the COP the situation is even more dire. It is a much larger party than the MSJ and many more members of that party have secured lucrative appointments and contracts which they would be loath to give up. Any signal from that party's executive that it is pulling out of the coalition is certain to lead to the defection of many of its members who prefer today's gravy to tomorrow's good government. The case of Minister Anil Roberts is only the first rumblings of the avalanche that will come.

But if the COP does not leave the coalition how does it, in the face of the grand ultimatum it has issued, stay in the Partnership and still keep its dignity, its credibility and the majority of its membership intact?

The talks today may well have to focus less on the issues of party decision-making and mayoral appointments than on finding some face-saving fig leaf behind which the COP (and perhaps the MSJ as well) can hide when the political leader comes out to face the public and the membership, empty-handed.

• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.

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