Monday, January 22, 2018

We like it so

Most voters in Trinidad and Tobago do not vote against a government because of corruption.

This might surprise you. After all, the corruption factor in electoral defeat is typically treated as an incontrovertible fact of T&T politics. So, before I explain why this delusion has become so ingrained in our political discourse, let me controvert the incontrovertible.

We can start with 1986. In that year, the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) won the general election in a landslide 33 to 3. The People’s National Movement (PNM), having occupied government for an unbroken 30 years, was ousted—and everybody said it was because the electorate had finally got fed up of that party’s long record of corruption.

The first problem with this interpretation is that the PNM had been corrupt since the 1960s, from the gas station racket to the Caroni Racing Complex to the DC-9 scandal. But this same electorate was never sufficiently moved to vote for any of the opposition parties, including the Organisation for National Reconstruction in 1981. Besides, even when the PNM was reduced to three seats, the party still received nearly 32 per cent of all votes cast.

The second problem is that, five years later, the PNM was returned to office with 45 per cent of the votes—so apparently the electorate got over its disgust with that party’s corruption pretty fast. The 1995 election threw up the 17-17 outcome in Trinidad, with the two NAR Tobago seats putting the United National Congress into government for the first time.

Corruption was not an issue in that election, but by 2000 the UNC was supposedly collapsing under the lashes of dog rice, desalination plant, and the Piarco Airport scandals. Yet, having got 240,372 votes in the 1995 election, the UNC now won 307,791 votes in 2000—an increase of 28 per cent. Even in 2001, when the party was ousted from government in the 18-18 deadlock, it still lost just nine per cent of voters from the previous election and had almost 50 per cent of all votes cast compared to the PNM’s 46 per cent. But then-President Arthur NR Robinson felt that “moral and spiritual values” trumped the will of the majority of the electorate.

Thus, by the time the 2007 general election was called, the Patrick Manning-led PNM had made deals with gang leaders and racked up over 1,700 murders, despite ludicrous spending on skytowers and blimps. Even so, the PNM won the election with 299,813 votes, which was a 15 per cent increase over its 2001 tally.

By 2010, the PNM had on its plate tall buildings, Calder Hart, the Guanapo church, and over 2,700 murders. The PNM’s loss to the coalition People’s Partnership in May that year was hailed by political commentators as a sea of change in the nation’s politics . Never mind that, overall, the PNM’s support between 2007 and 2010 had dropped only by five per cent; or that, in the marginal seats, the against-PNM swing was a mere nine per cent average; and that, despite Manning’s vast unpopularity, he lost just seven per cent of the votes in his San Fernando East constituency.

Which brings me to my first explanation as to why so many of us hold this false idea that most voters vote against a party because of corruption. It is partly because of political commentators who, believing opinion to be equivalent to analysis, claim that corruption is the key reason for every change in government since 1986.

You, in turn, may have believed these commentators because you thought they had been selected by the media to comment on politics because they know what they’re talking about, rather than being selected by the media because it sound like they know what they’re talking about. But, in T&T, as you know, sounding knowledgeable impresses people more than actual knowledge.

The other reason that corruption seems to be the determining factor in elections is that ordinary citizens constantly complain about it. Along with crime, corruption is the issue which attracts the most vehement condemnation from the public. It scores high in opinion polls, is standard fare of radio talkshows, and a central topic for letter-writers and website commenters.

This, however, is another illusion created by simple sleight of hand: the people who complain so bitterly about corruption are rarely the same people at a different time—instead, one set falls silent when their party is in power, and vice-versa. But both sets say exactly the same things about each other, so it sounds like the same people talking.

Which brings me to the central reason so many of us buy into this claim that governments are struck down by their failure to control corrupt activities: moral egoism. We like to believe that, collectively, we are highly principled human beings who are intolerant of wrong-doing and who will send a strong message to all politicians who do not adhere to our high standards.

The figures, however, say otherwise.