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To vote as we live

By Sunity Maharaj

Depending on which end of the Cynicism Index you tend towards, you might argue that the THA election will be decided by who has the greatest voter support, or the most corn to feed fowl, or the biggest stash of electoral ink, or simply weather conditions on Monday 21.

For Tobagonians, the important issue is that they elect a team that is capable of representing their interest with the confidence to negotiate with the central government on their behalf.

For Trinidadians, it should be enough that the electoral outcome reflects the will of the people of Tobago-not corn, or electoral ink, or weather.

Thereafter, the issue for Trinidad should be how to transfer Tobago's perspective of a self-interested community constituency to its own campaign for representation in the local government elections later this year. If we in Trinidad could become as clear as Tobago on our self-interest, we might yet have a chance at escaping the old culture of central power.

Local government should be the political institution for anchoring us more firmly in our communities and in our land and, by so doing, give us a real stake in the management and distribution of its resources. Instead, local government has never been anything but a functionary of central power.

History and geography may have given Tobago clarity on self-interest, but in Trinidad, central power has co-opted history as a strategy for blocking geography wherever it threatens the culture that keeps it alive. We see it in the fracturing of communities whenever entrenched power comes under attack. Divide to rule, over and over.

Over the succession of political administrations, we have seen the virulent and extreme responses of central power when it perceives itself to be under threat. Increasingly, it has lost its swagger of self-confidence. How quickly it embraces flagrant authoritarianism and naked bribery as it veers wildly from one survival option to another.

But the end is in sight.

The only thing that can stop the flowering of real democracy now would be our collective failure to design appropriate institutional arrangements for guiding and anchoring our participation in the process of government.

We must not fail to respond, for if we do, the powerful forces being unleashed by the collapse of central power will turn on us and do us in.

This is why we, the people must take control of the constitution reform agenda and not abandon it to the ambassadors of central power. Even with the best of intentions, it is not in the nature of central power to resist the impulse to entrench itself. At this time, when it is on the run and when the people are flexing their own power, the great danger is that our silence and nonparticipation might make us party to the regeneration of central power, masquerading as local government.

On the cusp on this historic political divide with the past, we need to think through our responsibility and bring our capabilities to the process of defining the new structure of the republic.

Why not begin with some field work?

Check your regional corporation for the date of the next statutory meeting. That's the day, once a month, when the public can attend meetings of the regional corporation to observe general proceedings or listen in as councillors present some matter of special interest to them.

If you do, you might be, as I was, struck by the diligence of the councillors around the table, their earnestness in arguing their case for particular projects for which residents hold them personally responsible. You might be moved, too, by their frustration and impotence in flailing against an unmovable bureaucratic force. But most of all, you would see up close, for yourself, the dysfunctionality that is snuffing the life out of local government.

As the most accessible expression of representation, local government representatives carry the daily, direct burden of their community's hopes and fears and often pay a high price for failures far beyond their control. In some cases, they are the bodies from which the soucouyant of central power draws its blood.

This is not a parliament of the people at the local level, although that is what it clearly needs to be. In fact, it is not an expression of the people at all. Even when they are on the same political side, the system still pits the people against central government. Far from being a foundation block in the edifice of representative government, it can be a stumbling block in serving the people.

To bring the sunshine of people power into the process of government and administration, we must seize the constitution reform process and push hard against the rock-hard walls of history. Indeed, we have to turn the whole world upside down till we blue!

The future requires that we build a process for democratic government and effective, transparent administration from the ground up, anchoring the process from below so as to manage it all the way to the top.

As the critical machinery for mass, direct political representation, local government is the only antidote to the poison of centralisation based on the archaic illogic of ethnic association.

Communities, whether cultural, professional, economic, geographic or otherwise must invest now in equipping themselves for negotiate from an awareness of their own power. Let us not forget that it was first the denial of power and then the surrender of power that brought us to this pass where power continues to assume it can preside without the responsibility to represent.

Equipping ourselves requires a grounding with our many communities and constant dialogue to distill our own positions and understand those of others.

What would consensus be without meaningful dialogue but voluntary enslavement?

Only clarity on interest, process and system will protect us from the hysteria of the dying old order which, panicked by fear and insecurity, is ratcheting up old ethnic rivalries.

Change is upon us and the old order has no choice but to give way. Kicking and screaming, perhaps, but give way it will.

The future does not require the denial of the past or the death of the present.

What it asks, simply, is peace with both.

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