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Whither the COP?

By Selwyn Ryan

The UNC intra party election of March 24 helped to expose the fragility of the PP Coalition. It is now clear that the COP and the UNC have only one unifying agenda,viz, to retain and maintain the political power which they won in May 2010. Despite the widely shared hope that the coalition would remain intact and again win power in 2015, many members of the constituent parties-the MSJ, the TOP, the UNC ,the NJAC and the COP are uncomfortable in the coalition and see themselves as being at the end of a choke chain. For all kinds of reasons, they are allergic to the dominant UNC and the opposition PNM, both of which they regard as being indelibly tainted by gross corruption , misgovernance, and much else.

It must be recalled that COP is not a socially or ethnically united party. It draws its support from new voters, and the old line parties from which they fled.Depending on their demographic affiliation, COP members see the PNM and the UNC through different historical and sociological lenses. While both are deemed to have serious legitimacy and other deficits, one is less or more acceptable as a coalition partner. Some COP members regard the UNC as part of the great unwashed; some view the PNM likewise. These attitudes could be quite sharp in some cases and one could well understand the pressure that Prakash Maharaj must have had to bear.

Former Senate President Michael Williams well captured the spirit of desperation and equivocation which is to be found in the bosoms of some members of COP. As he recently wrote, "my hope for COP is that in the next election (if the Partnership lasts the full term), it could negotiate for and win the seats where its support in 2007 was greater than the UNC's. COP must not remain a cosmetic partner to the UNC in an abusive relationship. COP and UNC together must have control of government, but if UNC can get by on its own, I would advocate that COP be part of the opposition."

Some optimistic COPists believe that they are not inevitably consigned to being the junior party in an unbalanced marriage of convenience, and even go so far as to say that if the COP plays its cards correctly, it can displace both the PNM and the UNC in 2015 or perhaps hold the balance of power in a parliament that is deadlocked such as was the case recently in Guyana. The assumption is that latent disenchantment rebellion which is festering within the two tribal parties could intensify and induce adventurist and disgruntled elements to take desperate steps to save the party. In their minds,the answer to the question, "but who we go put" is not be found by gazing at the PNM or the UNC but within the ranks of the COP which they see as the NAR of a post-modern, post -racial Trinidad and Tobago. Indeed, 2010 will be seen in retrospect as one but one step in a dialectical and inexorable process that would take the party into winner's row. Given this they see it as imperative for the COP to keep their political noses clean and get ready for the tipping point. Elements in the PP are even now bent on exhuming the foetus of the NAR which they say was "born" too early and "died" before it could mature in the womb of the expectant society.

There are elements in the MSJ who also hold this millenarian view in respect of a workers party. As The president of the OWTU opined, the PP was a transitional force which had utility at the time when it was put together to blow away Patrick Manning. Manning now seems to be history and the real war is yet to come. As Roget put it, "We have to have a new dispensation, a new political vehicle and we see MSJ as the only party with a difference, different from the COP, different from the UNC and certainly different from the PNM; the MSJ must thus remove itself from the Partnership. The country is ready for a radical change and has already lit a fire under the MSJ to begin initiating that change. I make absolutely no apology in saying that I am prepared to lead a struggle to end the reign of this government."

My own view is that the product of which they dream is not an impossibility- Nothing is impossible in politics- but is certainly not in the cards for 2015. But as elements work towards the achievement of the political nirvana of which they dream, one can expect the instability to be continuous; Coudray did sneakily what hundreds are doing silently.

Success or failure in these endeavours is of course not preordained. History does not progress in a straight line. It zig zags, depending on what agents do or omit doing or on accidents or what seems to be accidents. It also depends on what happens to the UNC and the PNM, both of which are seeking either to retain or to regain power They are both trying to modernise and democratize themselves. Dr Rowley is constantly on the prowl, seeking to slough off the detritus from the old PNM without alienating the PNM base in the process. His task also involves wooing back those who decamped to the PP as the Manning Caravan came around the bend. The UNC, for its part, is also digging in its heels, and updating its structures. The elections were touted as an exercise in democracy-building. The political leader of the party is, however, now the undisputed boss whose skirt tails serve to keep the UNC in play and Jack at bay.

The country is, however, aware that the event was divisive and did not go nearly as well as was hoped. The membership yawned and shrugged, and very few members turned out to vote. It is not easy to read the banana leaves in a primary election, but the question to be determined is whether the low turnout was the result of logistical and other difficulties involved in casting ballots; or whether the shine has come off the UNC ball and people have gone on the proverbial back foot. Either that, or notwithstanding the rhetoric about party democracy,there is really no strong demand for party democratisation. People may simply want better common goods and services, cleaner and more efficient government, less corruption, and do not expect to get them by becoming party activists unless they are patronage-seekers.

It may also be that except in middle class parties, members of mass parties see their role as supportive of the leadership rather than as co-deliberators and shapers of public policy. Mr Manning may well have been right when he argued that the role of party members was to support the party leader.

Mr Panday too seems to have had a change of view. He seems to believe that people would turn out to support party elections if they come to mean something .He argued that there can be no party democracy if the leadership of the party and government were one and the same. In the current circumstances, the party had no autonomy and could not act independently of the government since the same people made all the critical decisions. The party is in no position to tell the government what is right and what was wrong. " You have to extricate the party from the clutches of the Government." If not, "the iron law of oligarchy" would prevail.

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