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The PNM's coalition equation

By Michael Harris

In my article last week I sought to point out the possible far-reaching implications for politics which could arise as a result of the dramatic shift made by the leadership of the PNM in that party's position on forming coalitional arrangements with other groups and parties.

But, as I noted, there was still a long way to go before the PNM's changed position could give rise to some new and credible coalition arrangement. I pointed out that the very first obstacle might lie within the PNM itself since there would inevitably be opposition within the party to the new direction.

There are, however, other significant issues to be resolved and the party clearly has to a lot of work to do to more precisely define, and communicate to the country, what is the range and the limit of its new direction. For example, does the new direction mean that the party would be actively seeking such arrangements in order to fight elections or does it mean that it is prepared to join with other parties, after an election, to form a government?

The two arrangements are emphatically not the same although there are some similar considerations which come into play in either scenario. If the new direction means that the PNM is prepared to join with others to fight elections then there are immediate implications for the party in terms of both the style and content of its message going forward.

As far as its style is concerned one issue is certainly going to be the way it deals with other parties and groups. A lot more circumspection and finesse is going to be required when it addresses the issues of the day, particularly when those issues affect or impact on other parties and their positions.

But this issue of style does not only have to do with how it treats with others. Perhaps, even more significant in this case, is how other parties and groups, and the population as a whole, perceive it. The fact is that the PNM is toting a whole load of unpleasant and unflattering baggage. Over its long history, particularly those years it spent in government, it has alienated large segments of the population with its corruption, its mismanagement, its arrogance and its "party card only" style of operation.

Other parties and groups would be justifiably concerned with whether their own reputations, and support, would not be irremediably compromised and tarnished by association with the PNM. Changing this perception becomes an urgent imperative for the party given its new direction and would require a lot more than a cosmetic makeover of the political leader.

Fortunately what that task requires dovetails nicely with what is also required in terms of the content of its message. The PNM has no choice now but to develop, document and disseminate a new, clear and cogent philosophy as to how it sees itself as a party in the context of a vision for the country. It is the committed espousal of such a vision for the future and of such a statement of core principles which is going to determine for itself, its supporters, other groups and parties, and the country as a whole the dimensions of its new direction and the limits beyond which it will not go.

Of course once this new philosophy is elaborated the party must demonstrate the integrity to stand by its principles.

If the party's new direction means only that it is prepared, after an election, to join forces with another party with seats to form the government then the required adjustments are less fundamental but still not easy. In fighting an election on its own, and appealing to its traditional support, the PNM does not have to vary the content of its message to any great extent. But finesse in delivering that message is still required since it would not want to alienate parties which it might need to woo after the elections.

What this scenario does require, however, is adroit negotiation skills as well as a clear understanding of what its priorities are. This is so precisely because by entering the coalitional game it has given leverage to smaller parties to make demands in terms of policies and decision-making mechanisms.

But there is one other issue which needs to be considered. I have spoken in vague generalities of other groups and parties. But the PNM would need to take a far more focussed and critical look at what the possibilities are in terms of any actual coalitional arrangements. They must ask themselves what are the forces in play and what are the realistic prospects for any arrangement with those forces?

In this context "realistic prospects" translate into one word. Credibility! Any coalitional arrangement must be such as to be credible with the majority of the population. Credible, in the sense that it constitutes a genuine alliance of forces which represent real interests and credible equally in the sense that the balance of power in any such arrangement is not overwhelmingly on one side or the other.

When we focus on such hard and specific questions it becomes apparent that there are, as the political landscape currently stands, very few options. There is only the COP and the MSJ. All the other groups and parties like the DNA and the Jericho Project group are, at this point in time, irrelevancies.

The COP is currently in the People's Partnership coalition and is part of the Government. Its new chairperson has indicated that her priority is to negotiate for more seats in the Partnership. This would seem to suggest that the COP is fully prepared to stay in the Partnership to the next election. In any case it is doubtful that the COP is still the same force or has the same credibility it did in 2010.

The MSJ is small and while it won some credibility points for leaving the Partnership the general perception is still that it is nothing but a front for the militant unions. It still has a lot of work to do to break free of that perception and be seen as a national party.

So that realistically there is, at present, nothing out there for the PNM. But it is still a long way to go before the next election and the political landscape is in a state of flux. It would be a mistake to believe that what is, is all that there could be two years from now.

This gives the PNM plenty of time, if it is serious about its new direction, to prepare itself for the moment opportunity knocks.

—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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