Friday, January 19, 2018

Too much power

AS every day brings the general election closer, we must be prepared for the inevitability of sameness no matter who wins.  After all the frenzied and emotional support for one party or the other, after all the hype and hoopla of campaigning, as always, one person will walk away with all the power. We will then sit and wait for deliverance from yet another incarnation of the colonial governor. And when he/she fails, our ageing  bewilderment will return.

I have written before that “our prime ministers have been elected kings dominating the Cabinet, Parliament and the country with enormous power but no inescapable requirement for accountability, protected by tribal bases to whom embattled politicians  turn for unquestioning allegiance and protection.” 

Our post-independence history is replete with arbitrary exercise of prime ministerial power. Every annual budget is itself a confiscation of the national treasury by the party and financiers in charge, with the Parliament, being a mere tool to give it legitimacy. Outside of Parliament in the arena of raw politics, we saw how Patrick Manning commandeered Woodford Square and bussed in supporters to counter a vote of no-confidence; and how Mrs Persad-Bissessar, Jack Warner and others summoned the faithful to Debe  and hurled  abuse at Wayne Kublalsingh  for protesting  the Mon Desir  sector of the highway  which  continues despite very valid concerns of experts. The great power of the prime minister is the fundamental flaw in our Constitution and the genesis of many massive errors over the last 50 years.

All our prime ministers, except George Chambers relished the power. Williams was the epitome of arrogance with his “who don’t like it, get to hell out of here”.  Arthur NR Robinson, who deserves praise as he has passed, also adopted the Williams style of arrogance and highhandedness, and was often overbearing as a prime minister.  So were Messrs Manning and Panday sometimes, with their intolerance of the free media and their desire for even more power as Mr Manning demonstrated with his version of  a new constitution and which was  one  reason for his fall-out with Ken Valley who called Mr Manning a dictator. The incumbent, Mrs Persad-Bissessar, is charming, but inevitably autocratic. However, unlike her male predecessors, she loves office not so much for the power, but more for the attention and the glamour it provides.

With profound irony, because of their huge power, all prime ministers of this country have ended up very unpopular and quite disliked. For we gave them the power and waited for the manna.  And  they failed to deliver because democracy does not work that way. Constant engagement between leaders and citizens is an absolute necessity for the best possible direction, policies, priorities and   allocation of resources. But even more important, such engagement creates the environment for a  living society and all that it means, including a sense of home, belonging, civic responsibility, even patriotism. But after 50 years, there is still no society here. Our deformed Constitution prevents it. It denies constructive engagement of the citizenry in their own lives. Therefore when faced with inefficiencies, waste, mismanagement and corruption in every administration, when hurt every time by the alienation from the corridors of their own power, all the people are left with are demonstrations and protests that all prime ministers and their administrations have provoked. And so all governments have “collapsed in office’’, weighed down by the very power they sought. They all ended unloved by the people, diminished by the very power they relished. 

There is no issue more important, but don’t expect it to be mentioned by any politician or party as they race for power whilst standing  still. This Government is as disliked as was the Manning, Panday and Robinson administrations before it. A large section of the population wants to get them out, hoping that the new driver would drive well. But how would he/she when the engine is stalled. The system dooms our best political talents to failure. Always after the swearing-in, the staleness quickly returns. 

Because of his charisma, intellect and achievements and propped up by demography, Eric Williams remained prime minister for 25 years. No other PM comes anywhere near. All were one-termers, except Mr Manning, who had two terms in his second incarnation and maybe only because of a fractured opposition. The population has been sending prime ministers packing with great regularity since 1986. This is the ray of hope, that with the enduring disillusionment which first found expression 45 years ago in the Black Power marches and the February Revolution, the people will come to realise the need for structural change in the governance of this country. It is possible that when the next administration fails, the scales would finally drop from our eyes.

But will we survive till then?  We face enormous economic and social challenges. Let no one be fooled by the facade of a country on the move. The bubble has already burst and we are living on borrowed time and money. Foreign earnings will not return to previous heights. The global energy market has been transformed by huge discoveries in Latin America and Africa and by the shale revolution in America. At home, poverty and underdevelopment are spreading at the widening lower levels of the society, as increasing numbers of unemployable youth emerge annually from the school system, threatening family and community life, increasing crime and deviancy and sowing the seeds of an implosion. At the other end of the spectrum, massive corruption and white collar crime go undetected or unpunished, underscoring the lawlessness in Trinidad and Tobago. Add to that cocktail the increasing insidiousness of the drug trade and see the impotence that too much power for our prime minister has brought us.   

• Ralph Maraj is a playwright and former government minister