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We do not understand democracy

By Allyce Woodhouse

 “Citizens are the owners of society. The government is made by the people. People are you and me simply.” —Zimbabwean citizen who was part of an advocacy mission.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the government of the day is a coalition born—much like the NAR was—of the concern to rid the country of corruption and secrecy in government. From where I stand though, this saviour government arrived with a severe case of unrealistic expectations. 

One such expectation is that groups who share common interests must agree on everything. However, one sure point of contention in this coalition has been the treatment of women. I cannot judge whether various women were indeed assaulted by the various ministers, but ministers have been accused of inappropriate touching, assault and exchange of government assistance for sexual favours. Despite the increased presence of women in the political arena, and in spite of the presence of a female leader, the coalition has surely agreed to disagree where dealing with the fairer sex is concerned. 

Our country is testimony that there are headaches associated with a coalition government. It would appear that members did not weigh the pros and cons before making the decision to “join forces”. Parties began to throw terms around: “coalition”, “alliance”, and above all “partnership”. This is evidence of what political sociologists call a form of hidden power or agenda setting, where politicians use language to shape citizens thinking. For instance, we are expected to ignore the incriminating evidence that ministers have presented about each other while campaigning, all because they are now a “partnership”. 

Additionally, we were led to think that the previous government posed a threat to our democracy and that the “partnership” would relieve society of the ills that came with the former regime. We bought into the idea that an alliance meant change, and that partnership meant that the subgroups within this new government could solve our problems. Instead we see the redirection of resources to investigations and the disciplining of Government ministers. 

Since election into government, cabinet reshuffles and shifting responsibilities seem like an ongoing game of musical chairs. Ministers have been hired and fired to the point that we no longer know who is who and how long they will stay. We have been distracted from the issues such as crime, health care, poverty reduction and overall improvement of society with the flaunting of personal and private baggage of our so-called advocates of democracy. Is this what we bargained for? 

An advantage of a coalition should be that members can pool human and material resources to accomplish so much more. Instead, our ministers compete with each other on major industrial and economic projects, from constructing intersections, removing traffic lights, and spending on sports, to who is able to fight crime. Too often we hear ministers boasting of how much they have done as an individual, yet hear nothing representative of the whole. 

It is clear that the only thing this government agrees on is that they are to be in power. Let us keep in mind that members of the UNCA, COP and TOP have at one point tasted power when they were part of another government. It seems that this time around our experience with coalitions and alliances has just been an attempt to secure power at any cost. 

We must be empowered to realise that “democracy by the people and for the people’’, is not simply a cliché to be used in parliament. It is imperative that we realise the power within us, as a people, to insist upon a higher level of decorum by our government. We have to be involved in the decision making about issues affecting us; seeking information will help in questioning government and being persistent on answers is key. Citizens have the power to make governments do well. 

They are not doing us a favour; they are to give national service. Democracy cannot be found in the hands of the select few who sit in government or within the walls of Parliament; democracy lies within communities engaging in the decision-making process to affect change in our society. 

• Allyce Woodhouse is pursuing a Master’s of science degree in Sociology at the University of the West Indies,  St Augustine campus

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