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Whither the UNC?

By Selwyn Ryan

The recently held UNC party elections were not "pivotal'. Despite the amount of money and newsprint that was consumed, not much of lasting significance was determined by its outcome.

There were, however, some important questions to which it provided tentative answers. Perhaps the most important issue that was determined had to do with Jack Warner. There was widespread curiosity as to whether the constituencies which he had nursed so sedulously would rally to his support or take the traditional road. Happily for Warner, the attempt to hang his Jack did not yield the expected returns. Mr Mahabir and his supporters must have been chagrined.

Jack craved victory for several reasons. Like most politicians he wanted to win because electoral victory is what serious politicians thrive on. Power, or the smell of it, is what sustains them. But for Jack, the issue was much more important. Given all that had happened to his career in respect of FIFA and in terms of PURE, CAL, the Ministry of Transport etc, he needed the relegitimation that would accrue from a comprehensive and decisive victory. Such a victory would allow him to claim bragging rights from his political enemies—Sat Maharaj, the Cabal, Jenkins, Blatter et al, and all those who had bashed him and kept him awake at nights.

Jack's convincing victory—and that of Marlene Coudray—raises a few questions about the future direction of our coalitional politics. Have we really slithered into the age of "one-love" post-racial politics?

Will Jack attempt to use the chairmanship to build a broader power base for himself in order to resist the manoeuvres of the members of the "Cabal" about which he himself had complained? Does he have the proverbial one eye on the office of prime minister, and would he one day challenge Kamla for it, notwithstanding his dramatic "till death do us part" pledge. Given what he did and boasted about in respect of Panday, would Kamla and her colleagues ever trust him?

My own take on some of these issues is as follows: Looking forward with the eye of a realist, I see problems for the coalition as competition intensifies between the UNC, the MSJ and the COP for an increase in electoral market share. Neither the MSJ nor COP want to be contaminated by the UNC as election day grows closer.

The evidence from other jurisdictions indicate that coalitional instability, born of political game playing, increases in midterm when parties seek to "poach", "seduce", or raid each other's camp in order to attract floating voters or those who were their base supporters who had switched. As elections grow closer, the parties may hesitate on the brink if it appears that excessive brinkmanship might lead to "madness" (mutually assured destruction).

The events surrounding the migration of Coudray provides support for the view that political life is "brutish and short" and invariably "nasty".

Expect more switching from COP to the UNC. Returning to Warner, we note that he continues to be what one might call a political wild card. He attracts controversy by his garrulousness and his tendency to flout the protocols of collective responsibility. He is also well known for his political brazenness and assertiveness and his tendency to manipulate the media who oblige by amplifying his voice. There is concern that it is only a matter of time before the latent but structural conflict between himself and Kamla surfaces.

Jack is not unaware that he is regarded as a threat to the leadership and that he has to change his style. In what might well be the ultimate genuflection of the year thus far, Jack publicly admitted that he need to change his self presentation.

"I have to rebrand myself into a new kind of chairman and be less adversarial and more humble, unassuming and inclusive."

Tigers may have changed their stripes in the wild before; if so, it must have been a very rare occurrence. Jack is however not the only play maker in the game. The "cabal", who are political worthies with ambitions of their own, are not likely to allow him to break away from the pack. Singly and/or collectively, they will try to ensure that he does not monopolise the political "yellow shirt".

For the time being, however, he controls the vital Ministry of Works.

Another issue that invites comment has to do with whether Jack has cross-ethnic appeal. One UNC blog has argued that his sweeping victory has "put paid to a PNM resurgence in the East West Corridor". I myself do not see the link. There is no evidence that Jack is now the "pied piper" who will seduce PNM voters to cross the North- South political boundary en masse. To assume that is to underestimate how tough it is for political deviants to carry through with their disposition, even if they are tempted to do so.

The issue is of course tied up with the belief that the UNC is now a genuinely diverse party and not something that is manufactured for electoral ends. The party, and in particular its political leader, no doubt attracted genuine support from the "creole" community in 2010. But some of that support had a lot to do with the Manning phenomenon which shook the PNM to its base. Some of that support will never return. It is however just not true to say that race has lost its potency as a factor in Trinidad's party politics and that the election of Jack and Marlene to leadership positions in the UNC is evidence of such a shift. It is also just not true to say that "what was so yesterday is not so today", and that Trinidad's political parties have become post-racial.

Jack has however had a dream, and has pledged to restore the "one love" regime that was in evidence in 2012 (or should this be 2010?). As he asked plaintively, "It was once one love back then, why can't it be one love now? What has happened over the last two years, let us put it behind us and rise again."

The problem with Hindu-based parties in Trinidad and Tobago, at least so I have been advised by my Hindu colleagues, is that they cannot work well together. They are said to be victims of the "crabs in a barrel syndrome".

As soon as one rises to the top, the others move to pull him/her down. Thus the tendency towards persistent party fragmentation. Intra-party elections facilitate this process. In the final analysis, however, one is entitled to ask whether what members of the UNC did last week constitutes party democracy, or merely the first step towards it.

To be continued

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