While the country’s two main political parties grab the spotlight with their impending internal elections, the Congress of the People (COP) is struggling to remain relevant to the politics.
Seven years after it burst on the scene as a third political force with promises of transforming the political system, the COP has been reduced to an appendage within the People’s Partnership Government. So disconnected from the electorate has it become that its leaders have now resorted to hiring Canadian political strategist Ray Larson to help them re-engage with the “grassroots” constituency.
The most common criticism levelled against the COP is that it sacrificed its political future by subsuming itself within the People’s Partnership Government. COP chairman Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan acknowledges that her party’s relationship with the United National Congress and its role within the People’s Partnership are at the heart of its problems. Speaking to the Sunday Express, she admitted that much of the disenchantment among supporters had to do with “the current relationship in the coalition and the way that coalition operates”, adding that the parties had never been able to get the relationship right.
The COP would not be the first political party to have failed in negotiating political space within a coalition. An even more spectacular failure was the coalition that brought the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) to office in 1986, only to split apart within its first year in government.
In assessing its political fortunes today, the COP would have to consider whether it made the right choice in setting aside its many differences with the UNC to stay in the Partnership Government, or whether it would not have been better off following the example of the ULF in 1988 when it broke from the NAR and lived to fight another day under the banner of the UNC.
Some disaffected COP supporters have openly accused the party’s leaders within the cabinet of choosing office over the political interests of the party; the leaders in turn have repeatedly argued the importance of staying in government as a political strategy. Given the party’s poor, almost negligent performance in the local government elections, the leadership will have a hard time convincing COP members of the effectiveness of this strategy.
The rapid rise of Jack Warner’s Independent Liberal Party (ILP) last year suggested that it was eating into some of the space once occupied by the COP. However, the poor performance of both the COP and ILP in the local government elections has now left the two traditional parties, the PNM and UNC, as the prime political contenders in the run-up to Election 2015.
However, with over a year to go, the situation is still too fluid for definitive conclusions. A lot can happen in a year. Whatever the strengths of the UNC and PNM, experience suggests that there is a constituency still searching for something different. With just over a year to go, it remains to be seen whether the COP can become relevant again or whether, like the NAR, it will be overtaken by other, more relevant forces.