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Rowley vs Penny

By Selwyn Ryan

 Thousands of PNM party members will turn out today to vote in their first ever intra party elections which employ the “one member, one vote” system. Use of this new system presented a number of important challenges  related to the issue of who is entitled to vote. Some analysts argue that it really does not matter a great deal which system one employs since the “iron law of oligarchy” always prevails ultimately. That law provides that mass parties always remain oligarchies no matter what is prescribed as a democratic prophylactic.

 Problems invariably arise when determining who is or is not a member and entitled to vote. Primary elections may be either closed or semi-open. In the latter, the right to vote may not only be limited to those who are registered and financial, but also those who are known to be stalwarts of the organisation. These are “sociological members”.

 The right to vote may also be allowed those who have voted for the party in a previous election, whether or not they remain in good financial standing. Some modern systems allow voters to register and vote online.

Rules vary from system to system. In some cases, the outcome of the election  may be determined by persons who are party members in name only.This allegedly happened to a considerable degree. UNC tacticians attempted to register persons en bloc who were really Trojan horses trying to break through the firewalls established to prevent subversion by pro Penny elements. Some were genuine idealists who argued that an element of openness could encourage parties to moderate their positions to attract potential supporters and widen its base. This was however not evident in this case.

 Clearly, what is good or dysfunctional depends on the history and demographics of the society, the nature of the electoral system, whether it is proportional or adversarial, or whether voters are inventive, swing or float. The PNM has done reasonably well so far, but the options have to be revisited.

One assumes that the PNM leadership would view this experience as just the beginning of the reform initiative. Perhaps the experience would be deconstructed and the positive elements used by other parties.

All the indications are that the elections were conducted without undue bacchanal. There might be some sore losers, but one assumes that the scars will heal in due course. Dr Rowley’s view that the presence of Team Penny in the election helped to energise the PNM is well taken.There were however a number of other issues which generated controversy. One was the allegation that the incumbents used  party funds for partisan ends. This allegation came as no surprise, since incumbents usually enjoy a premium in such elections. My own assumption is that after some equivocation, punters concluded that a Rowley victory seemed assured, and that despite their initial concern as to whether he was too black or not, they wanted a place at the table. Given the way parties are normally financed in Trinidad, it is difficult to maintain neat distinctions about source and destination of funds. Most financiers give directly to the political leaders and not to the official party treasurer, who is usually a minor player in fund raising activities.

An issue which provoked  controversy in the opening phases of the campaign had to do with whether or not Dr Rowley’s skin colour was of an acceptable tone. One party member got a rise when he said he did not want any “ugly, black, baldheaded Tobagonian” as his leader.

“Tantie Merle was not amused.”

The issue did not seem to have featured prominently in the open campaign, at least openly. If anything, it may have helped rather than hurt Rowley’s campaign.

Another issue which floated across the campaign screen was the so called “crossover appeal” that Penny was assumed to have. It is generally agreed that neither the PNM nor the UNC  could win a general election without collateral support from the mixed middle class. Beckles-Robinson and some of her advisers believe that she is better positioned to attract this element  than is Rowley. My own view however, is that this “third force” element would indeed split, but that when the bell tolls, most would go back to their primordial base. The Indocentric wing would support the UNC, the Afros who fled from Manning would return to the PNM, and  that a third would support neither or stay at home.

Rowley, for his part believes that race is no longer as salient as it once was. As he opined, “I think by and large in Trinidad and Tobago we have superseded the race issue. Not that there is no support based on racial geography, but it is not as overwhelming as it used to be and it gets better all the time. And the people who believe that you will get by appealing to your race would be taking a huge gamble. While it gives you an advantage to be an Indian in an Indian community, and an African in an African community, that is no guarantee of success. We in the PNM open our doors as wide as possible to every race, creed, colour, class or gender.”

Interestingly, some women activists believe that it is important to support “Team Penny”.

Some argue that more than ever, it was important to play the gender card, if only because Kamla had begun by generating manic optimism, but has so far been a disappointment. Whatever their political affiliation, they cannot let down the team. Tactically, they must vote Beckles-Robinson. Penny herself seems to have bought this argument, saying that her “campaign for the leadership became a gender issue because the people have passed judgement on Kamla’s ability to lead”.

Perhaps the major issue in the campaign is the view that Rowley’s political style would  keep politics in Trinidad and Tobago at too high a noise level. The claim is that Rowley is not politically “cool”. This was essentially a class driven view. My own view is that Rowley is not as aggressive as he appears to be, but political aggression is precisely what is needed at this juncture. Perhaps fortuitously, the times have thrown up someone who is knowledgeable, experienced, and passionate about the issues that are on, under and behind the table. It is rough out there, and we need someone who is good on defence as well as on offence. My view is that if Rowley did not now exist, one would have to invent him, so serious is the level of misgovernance facing us. Penny is way out of her depth.

Many were of the view that we  needed a “New Politics”. Yes we do. Ironically, however, what we have is a charade. Given the prevailing adversarial mood, the broad masses were searching for a new maximum leader, and many seem to think they have found one in Keith Christopher Rowley This column wishes Penny and her cohorts well, but as I advised earlier, “better be a penny wise than be a pound foolish”.

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