New political developments make an assessment of the present scenario necessary.
The Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) is now on its own. Will it gain traction? It is possible, but very difficult. Its major strength, the labour base, could also be an obstacle, if not managed. This base must not be an overpowering force in the fledgling party. A mass political party is a big tent, a coalition of societal forces. The MSJ must therefore be more than labour. It must have appeal for all. So will it adhere to the left and state capitalism or be more centrist, persuading the private sector, that under an MSJ administration, big government will not crowd them out and that capital and labour will co-exist in a dynamic harmony for the generation of wealth and employment? Its position on this and other fundamental issues will determine whether the MSJ remains stillborn.
The People's National Movement (PNM) is stirring more. Its General Council has taken the commendable decision that the party should embark on a campaign "geared towards earning the trust of the population"; to ensure "a two—way flow of conversation" between party and population, all designed to make the PNM more "attractive" to the wider citizenry.
This is a welcome move towards engagement with the population. It is in consonance with views expressed in a recent column 'Advice to the PNM' (Express 5th June) when I wrote "by now the PNM should have had this country buzzing with discussion and debate everywhere, from living rooms to rum shops, in malls, offices and taxis, about proposed changes towards its modernisation and renewed attractiveness to the population. Why keep this exciting process of renewal a secret? The entire nation should be involved". One now looks forward to a national discussion involving the PNM and the people it is seeking to lead. This is not pressure group activity. It is the inescapable action of a responsible national party that has lost an election badly and is seeking to get back into government.
Then there are interesting developments involving the United National Congress (UNC) and the Congress of the People (COP). Now, managing a coalition is never smooth sailing. The greater the number of partners, the more bothersome and vexatious it could be for the majority party in the arrangement. Therefore it shouldn't surprise anyone if the UNC intends to drop its coalition partners, certainly in Trinidad, and fight the next election here, on its own. Besides, any serious political party would seek self-sufficiency.
The UNC has embarked on this path. They heeded the warnings of many and stopped the drift from 'port', back to 'plantation'. We have consequently already seen the restoration and rise of Jack Warner and the crossing and elevation of Marlene Coudray. They would undoubtedly now have their eyes on Anil Roberts and Errol McLeod, both estranged from their own parties. The intention is to make the UNC slate strong in diversity and depth for the next election. The goal is invincibility.
The departure of the MSJ caused an adjustment in strategy because it set an example that the COP could follow. If the latter leaves, the government would be severely weakened with a loss of legitimacy and rough consequences. The UNC's move to invincibility would run aground.
So when the reshuffle came, seeking to improve government's performance, it also ensured the COP stays put. It must have taken promises of the moon, stars and the presidency for Winston Dookeran to stay in the Cabinet after his demotion. Being the Minister of Foreign Affairs of a small country is not as important as being its Minister of Finance. Had Dookeran withdrawn, the rest of the COP could have more easily followed. Instead the UNC has now tightened its embrace with the retention of Dookeran, the promotion of Dr Lincoln Douglas; the appointment to the Cabinet of COP members, Ganga Singh and Jamal Mohammed; and the retention of their ministries by all COP ministers, except Nicole Dyer-Griffith.
But the COP would be naive to bask in any apparent 'new importance'. The UNC will not give up its pursuit of freedom from the shackles of the Partnership. In preparation for the next election, efforts will intensify to assimilate as many non-UNC members of the Cabinet into the party. UNC's Jack Warner is already featuring in Dr Winston Douglas' COP seat of Lopinot/Bon Air West. And Prakash Ramadhar should consider this: if for some compelling reason, the executive of the COP decides that the party must leave the Partnership, will his members in Cabinet, follow him on the way out? Some may even ask whether he himself would leave, given the UNC 'safe seat' that he now occupies.
The COP can have a real 'new importance' and cease being a mere ward of UNC. But it must be prepared to demand good governance and stand its ground, even if it means having to leave the Partnership. It is the way to retain its 'purity', regain its dignity and identity and re-inspire its constituency, that growing middle non-tribal minority, which gave it over one hundred thousand votes in 2007, and which is now parked and disillusioned. If it remains in government without its demands met, it runs the risk of corruption by association and loses the opportunity for its own regeneration. The situation demands the courage of conviction. Does the COP have the grit or is the writing on the wall?
As we move towards the next election, what lies in store for our political parties? Will the MSJ get off the ground? Will the COP re-ignite? Will the PNM regain its strength? Will the UNC become invincible? Three years is an eternity. Anything could happen.
* Ralph Maraj is a former government minister.