Among the main political parties, the PNM is first in settling its leadership race. Keith Rowley’s landslide win on Sunday reverses his 1996 defeat by Patrick Manning under the old delegate system. This strengthens the leadership position he assumed in 2010 but also highlights how late the PNM has been in this fundamental aspect of democracy. How one-man, one-vote could have taken so long? How quickly can the party adjust to the debate and dissent brought by openness? The scorekeepers will question if this is a fifth People’s Partnership election loss but the PNM’s first test is with the losing slate.
The PNM will celebrate its diamond jubilee in 2015. It hopes the country’s one million voters will deliver the perfect gift and return the party to government where it has spent three-quarters of its existence. On the road to the diamond jubilee, Dr Rowley has sent a strong signal by putting the party under his “new management” and pushing for new talent and faces that can reshape the PNM or lose trying. Sunday’s win by Dr Rowley did not showcase new talent and faces and decidedly leaves the party in well-known hands. That change agenda for the party will have to run alongside Dr Rowley’s political agenda for his 2015 general election run. Both are critical because the shape and look of the PNM will decide how far outside its core support it will drift in its search for decisive votes in the next elections.
While the PNM remains the long-standing political party in T&T, there is more to that stability than party discipline. For most of its post-independence history the country has been polarised, and diversity and dissent are not features of our politics. Both have caused political fractures. For a chunk of its existence “not a damn dog bark” has been a more prominent PNM tenet than its “magnum est pnm et praevelibit” (“great is the PNM and it shall prevail”) battle cry. In a country where political parties are not divided within themselves, pitting rival views against each other internally, the politics is monolithic and many times unimaginative.
Concepts like collective responsibility, toeing the line, and operating under the “whip” in Parliament are elements of groupthink that have been in the driver’s seat, stomping on opportunities for debate, challenge, and transparency. Ultimately, among all political parties that “noble tradition” of speaking with one voice, repressing dissent and challenge, and forcing collective responsibility has been passed off as stability and discipline, a mislabelling that drives people away from active political engagement and makes politics something of ill-repute. Heading to its 60th birthday party, the PNM and Dr Rowley must lead the change. The politics must be shaped around a fundamental understanding that we must agree to disagree. The debates will take place anyway. It’s up to the political parties to decide if they wish to be part of it or die on their own.
It is instructive that the democracy now at play in the PNM has been 59 years in the making. Analysts will retrace this late development and flag moments in the country’s history when that lack of true democracy in the PNM has played out in the party’s style and attitude towards governance. Countless cabinet decisions must surely have been made under command, others made without cabinet approval or its rubberstamp after the fact, and many announced but never really made. Without openness and challenge there’s little room for transparency and by now the PNM and the other parties have surely learned that nothing remains a secret. They must also have learned that even within issues on which a party has agreed on a broad basis, there will be different approaches to implementation and different approaches to delivery. No group can constantly and unanimously agree on every element of a policy or plan and will not be part of the forward agenda.
In crafting his new executive, Dr Rowley was decidedly status quo. Right away that would have had consequences outside the party. It must be that his leadership challenge required a more guarded approach to his change agenda. But the next round of internal elections in the PNM will not be so lopsided. The party must now move to a more active, debate-driven method of building its public policy and political strategy. It cannot attract new members, especially younger members, if there is no meaningful and sensible engagement. For Dr Rowley’s first term as the leader elected under one-man one vote, the agenda is likely predictable. His election platform will likely be built around four pillars: crime and access to justice; Parliament and meaningful democracy; resource distribution, governance, and accountability; and critical legislative reform. Any political party operating in the current landscape will have that as its agenda.
But in his eventual hand-over of this leadership, Dr Rowley will also transition newer issues and approaches to those issues upon which consensus will be impossible and decisions divisive. Trinidad and Tobago is already on the cusp of the marijuana decriminalisation debate. But for a staleness of thinking, we should already have been a decade into the full understanding of what the fundamental right to equality means for our society, especially the questions of how we treat same-sex relationships and some of the discriminatory laws we have allowed to exist. We have not worked out the issues of child rights and the way in which we guard children. And, we have not been able to move quickly enough to deal with the challenges of technology and massive information gathering on privacy, personal security, and the commoditisation of personal data and identities. At its heart, the country is not excited and staleness will not help.
Dr Rowley’s forward agenda must not stop at the one-man one-vote system. The two slates must regroup and build a modern political party that debates, dissents, develops, and respectfully agrees to disagree. At 60, much is expected from the PNM.
*Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer