Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The THA election 2013


Mark Fraser

The tumult and the shouting of today's THA election will, victory celebrations excepted, be dead by the day's end. I thank the gods for that. If he had been here these last few weeks, Machel Montano would have learned a thing or two about big trucks, real and figurative, both types large, ubiquitous and ear-splittingly noisy. Electioneering by other means will continue, however; that never ends.

This election isn't merely about the THA; it's a national referendum. The People's Partnership already controls the central government and the majority of the local government bodies; it naturally wants the THA for a clean sweep. Its Tobago surrogate, the TOP, is in the vanguard of that struggle; the TOP leader, Ashworth Jack, seeks anointment as Chief Secretary. If his party loses, however, he may have to weigh his options.

The PNM, unable yet to enthuse middle T&T, must win today or see its stocks decline further, with all the implications for this year's local government elections in Trinidad and, who knows, the general election to be held within the next two-and-a-half years. The PNM's is not the only fate that is at stake. So are Keith Rowley's and Orville London's—party barracudas, long unhappy with the fare both men have been feeding them, will be scenting blood. (And remember, London presided over the PNM loss of Tobago in 2010.)

It was a mostly unedifying campaign, soaked in bacchanal, vitriol, personal invective, attempted political point-scoring, and allegations of unsophisticated vote-purchasing; divisions within the island have deepened. Development issues appeared only fleetingly, like bashful will-o'-the-wisps. It was no wonder so many people were saying they wouldn't vote. I look forward with interest to seeing the percentage of the electorate that did in fact exercise its right at the ballot box.

Two subjects in particular caught the headlines: Ashworth Jack's house and Hilton Sandy's "Calcutta" statement. (More recently, there has also been the hubbub over Jack's debate "notes", but for now I leave that to the Debates Commission.)

Concerning the house, the Prime Minister said that the election was "not about the house of Jack but the House of Assembly''.It was a nice turn of phrase, but in my view insufficient to dispel concerns (and now the Integrity Commission has become involved). For his part, Jack said he couldn't have used State funds to help build the house because he wasn't in the THA administration and thus had no access to official monies. That too was insufficient.

A person in high political position must not only be transparent, and able and willing to account satisfactorily for the use of taxpayers' funds; s/he must also be seen to be so. The imperatives of transparency and accountability apply also to someone aspiring to such position. The argument that you aren't using State money lacks relevance, because political investors are everywhere and anxious for hefty returns on their investments. To many in Tobago, Jack's explanations fall short of the credible. When in addition I note the amount of money that both the TOP and the PNM obviously spent on the campaign — the problem of campaign funding again—my alarm goes well beyond thoughts of pumpkins and cucumbers. With the greatest respect to the PM, the immediate focus of the election was, yes, the House of Assembly, but that had to include the issue of the house of Jack.

As for the racist "Calcutta" jibe, Sandy has now publicly apologised twice. On the second occasion, in Roxborough eight days ago, some in the crowd tried to shout him down. You could easily grasp their meaning: Sandy had earlier been spot on about "a ship from Calcutta" and they had agreed with him, so what was he now apologising for? That tells you something about our society, if you didn't already know it.

But that second apology indicates to me that the PNM has seen the political dangers it faces as a result of Sandy's injudicious remark. (I say nothing about sentiments within the party.) Rowley's image makeover—Divali Nagar, doubles in Debe, etc.—has been adversely affected. Not for today's election, but for forthcoming polls in Trinidad.

What happens if the PNM wins today? Relations between the Government and the London administration have been continuously sour, often poisonous. The contempt shown to PoS by the PNM in the THA campaign—"the worst central government in our history", or words to that effect—will not be forgotten by the PM and her Cabinet; coded allusions such as "pagans", "a vote for the TOP is a vote for the UNC", and so on have only exacerbated matters. How would a new London Executive Council treat with the very "Calcuttans" it has reviled but on whom it depends for financial succour?

What happens if the TOP wins? Jack is widely seen in Tobago as overly influenced by the PM. That might be unfair to him, but the perception persists. Would Tobagonians therefore believe that a Jack administration would in essence be only a front for Persad-Bissessar puppetry? Or are they so disenchanted with the London years that they are nonetheless prepared to give Jack a chance?

Which brings us back to talk of ships from Calcutta. (I hope you know there's a Calcutta in central Trinidad, and it's fairly near the sea.) Do Tobagonians, who take such pride in being independent-thinking and proud of Tobago and its heritage, really believe that someone can just walk, or sail, into Tobago and take their property just like that? Is this serious?

Whichever of the two main parties is victorious today—few expect Hochoy Charles' Platform of Truth to hold the balance of power —the overriding consideration is the welfare of Tobago. What of its socio-economic development? Its constitutional advance through internal self-government? It is issues like these we should be concentrating on, not bacchanal.

But this is bacchanal country, and Carnival is just around the corner.

• Reginald Dumas is a former ambassador and former head of the public service