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Race and the THA elections

By Michael Harris

Exactly one week has passed since the Tobagonians delivered their stunning decision in the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) elections. In the intervening period there has been no lack of reaction, responses and commentary coming from all sides of the political spectrum. Such a plethora of reaction and commentary is not surprising and I make no apology for adding my two-cents worth of reflection on the issue.

For the fact is that the result of the election clearly took everyone by surprise including, by the admission of Chief Secretary Orville London, the PNM itself. The key issue emerging from the elections is not the fact that the PNM won. The polls had consistently pointed to a PNM victory.

The real shocker, and what, in many different ways, we need to understand and come to terms with, was the comprehensive and overwhelming nature of the victory. Tobagonians, it is now clear, went out to the polls last Monday in record numbers, determined to make a statement which left no room for doubt. The question is, what statement did they intend?

The first proposition I would make in this regard is that while the PNM in Tobago won the election the statement was not about the PNM. To put it clearly, last Monday more Tobagonians voted for the PNM than, in fact, support the PNM. The PNM was the default recipient of a massive vote not for the PNM but against the TOP. To put it another way, if the PNM had not been in the race and the TPT of Hochoy Charles was the only party facing the TOP, today the TPT would be in total control of the THA.

But it is not enough merely to say that Tobagonians voted to reject the TOP. That would not explain the massively united message which they sent last Monday. It is in this respect that we need to examine many of the views which have been circulating among politicians, commentators and bloggers since the election.

Perhaps the most prevalent of those views is that the result of the election was all about race. This is the viewpoint articulated by UNC Chairman Jack Warner who, in his reaction to the election results stated that the people of Tobago voted on the basis of "tribal instincts" and the fear that a "Calcutta ship" was coming.

This viewpoint has received wide support among certain bloggers and analysts. The Chief Secretary of the THA, Orville London, has repudiated and rejected that view stating that it was "insulting and degrading to Tobagonians".

Another view of the elections has come from Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar who stated that the victory by the PNM-led THA had nothing to do with race but fear. This view about the fear factor is not really that different from the view about race. For while the Prime Minister did not bother to explain what she thought Tobagonians were afraid of, Mr Warner had also stated that "The results of the THA election reflect how palpable the notion of fear among the African population can be."

It is not difficult to see how Mr Warner and others could come to the conclusion that the results of the THA election were all about race. Such persons operate from a point of reference rooted in Trinidad politics where race, defined in terms of the political tension between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians, has been an ever-present feature of political and electoral contestations. And, when we add to that frame of reference, the utterly maladroit and foolish statement made by Hilton Sandy during the campaign, it is easy to conclude that it was all about race.

There have been those, however, who have sought to deny that race was such an overwhelming factor in the elections. Such persons point to the fact that just two and a half years ago Tobagonians voted in the general elections for the TOP as part of the People's Partnership, which they were fully aware was led and dominated by the UNC, which is essentially an Indo-Trinidadian party.

In my view both sides of this debate miss the point. For they both argue from a perspective on race informed by Trinidad politics. I would suggest that the result of the THA election was indeed all about race and can only be explained in terms of race. But in this viewpoint "race" is not to be understood in terms of African antipathy towards, or fear of, Indians.

The definition of race, and if you would, the fear which dominated the THA elections and led to such a resounding statement by the Tobagonian electorate is one in which race is defined as "nation" or "people". Tobagonians are not "Africans" or "Black People" or "Negroes". They are Tobagonians — a distinct people. And there is pride in their view of themselves as a distinct people and a distinct race.

Tobagonians may argue amongst themselves, and vote for one party or another on the basis of whatever the issues are, as long as they are assured that the nation, the race, is defended and protected. That is the sine qua non. The first thing which any serious Tobago party must do is assure the electorate that they would defend the integrity of the race. Then they can talk about issues and why they would be better running Tobago affairs than the other party or parties.

This is what Ashworth Jack, leader of the TOP, completely forgot. Long before the election campaign even began Tobagonians were voicing their concern over Mr Jack's apparent willingness to convert himself into a pliable and obsequious puppet not just of the People's Partnership, but of the Prime Minister. All over the island, in whatever company he was in, Mr Jack was heard to boast of how close his relationship was to the Prime Minister.

In the end Tobagonians asked themselves the question, to whom would Mr Jack give his allegiance on any issue affecting the race? To Tobago or to the Prime Minister? On Monday last they gave a resounding answer to that question and consigned Mr Jack and the TOP to the political ashes.

—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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