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Tobago's dilemma

By Michael Harris

I cannot claim to have an ear to the ground when it comes to Tobago affairs. So in this instance I rely on the reports of knowledgeable friends and respected commentators who, on this issue, seem to be united in the view that the people of Tobago have been given a choice of drinking from either of two poisoned chalices in the forthcoming Tobago House of Assembly elections.

I trust that my fellow Express commentator Dr Winford James would forgive me for quoting extensively from one of his recent articles on the subject. I do so only because it clearly sums up the dilemma which seems to face the Tobago electorate as they ponder on the forthcoming polls.

In his article Dr James stated that "The voters have to choose between two parties mired in old, reactionary, and proprietary agendas... Should they retain a PNM whose record of performance over the last 12 years includes: acute polarisation of government, opposition and independent forces; non-transformation of the economy; suggestive, subjacent corruption; virtual stasis; and a leadership whose inspiration dried up after the first four years? Or should they re-insert a DAC/NAR/TOP that has no inspiring alternative programme, that is part of a partnership which has on multiple occasions demonstrated its unsuitability for respectful and democratic governance, and that is saddled with a leader who has a distaste for democracy and one who is, by the most charitable assessment, a puppet of the UNC?''

If Dr James and my friends are correct in their assessment then it means that the Tobago electorate, in two weeks time, will be required to make a choice that is even worse than that which the proverbial Mr Hobson offered to his customers. And, for all but the most diehard of partisans on either side, they face that choice without even a fig leaf with which to delude themselves that they are anything but naked.

Yet, precisely because the choices they face are so unredeemably bad, theirs is the opportunity to make a decision based upon a clinical and hardnosed political assessment that would not only serve themselves in good stead but also be a salutary lesson to the electorate in Trinidad.

For it was not too long ago in 2010 that the country as a whole faced a choice almost as bad. On the one side they had a PNM, mired in all sorts of corruption, and led by a rampant, megalomaniacal Patrick Manning, whose policy decisions seemed to be leading inexorably to the institutionalisation of a state of executive dictatorship.

On the other side there was a hurriedly thrown together pick-up-side, a collection of has-beens, wannabes, and never-weres, dominated by a UNC under new leadership.

Long before election day arrived it had become, or should have become, clear to any discerning onlooker that the People's Partnership simply did not have what was required to provide the country with the type of government and governance so earnestly desired.

In the event the electorate, on that occasion made, what I consider to be the right choice. The question is whether they made it for the right reasons? The sounds and signs of deep disappointment, frustration and outrage which have attended the People's Partnership administration as it perpetrated one egregious act of misgovernment and maladministration after another would suggest that a large percentage of the electorate had truly invested their hopes and dreams in them.

If that is so then they were sadly mistaken. But the question is why would they do that? Nothing in the manifesto of the People's Partnership, nothing that was said on their campaign platform, and nothing in the history of the various parties which made up the partnership, ever remotely suggested that they, collectively or individually, had a grasp of the fundamental problems which beset the country and a considered plan for tackling those problems.

So from whence did this hope of a new dispensation arise? I would suggest that there were two elements which allowed so many in the electorate to persuade themselves that the Partnership did indeed offer something new and wholesome. The first was the fact that the UNC was now led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar rather than Basdeo Panday, and the second was the fact that the Partnership included the COP and the MSJ, was sufficient to transform that new coalition into a viable alternative.

But there is an even more fundamental aspect to be considered. For it may well be that so many in the population sought to delude themselves that the People's Partnership offered hope of meaningful change because they simply could not comprehend and come to terms with the nauseatingly unpalatable choices which faced them without that fig-leaf of hope.

The fact is that as a people we had not yet come to understand and accept that often in politics the choice faced by electorates as well as by governments is a choice between two evils and that the best that can be done in such a circumstance is to choose that evil which leaves intact more, and better, options for the future.

This it would seem is the kind of choice which our brothers and sisters in Tobago now face. And they do so without any elements from which to construct a fig-leaf of hope. For unlike 2010 they cannot pretend that they do not know what the People's Partnership is and what it can do.

One can only hope they face their choice with courage and clear-headedness and make that decision which leaves open to them real options for tomorrow. If they do that they would have given to Trinidad an invaluable lesson in the realities of politics.

• 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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