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Who ‘Owns’ Our Political Parties?

By Selwyn Ryan

 Who “owns” our political parties? 

Mr Panday recently complained that those persons who are currently in charge of the “UNC” are not its true owners. 

As he asserted, “Every time you condemn the UNC, say ‘dem UNC’, and not we own, because that is not the real UNC. The real UNC is locked up in a room somewhere struggling to get out. You must free the UNC from the bondage of its kidnappers.”

This raises the question of just what constitutes a party and what constitutes “ownership”.

Interestingly, elements within the PNM are raising similar questions.

The group claims that its party is in danger and that its role is to “Preserve the Balisier”.

To quote its statement: “Our efforts are in support of ensuring the PNM is and is well structured to properly represent itself to the rest of the country to do things. The central focus is the perception that the PNM is being taken down a non-PNM path and abdicating its responsibility to the party’s’ constitution concerning a lot adjudicated upon by the leader.(sic)”

The group’s main concern is to ensure that the party symbols and the processes for conducting elections for officers of the party are in order. They also plan to put up candidates to contest the leadership elections when these are being held.

What is taking place in the PNM and the UNC as well as in the ILP and the COP raises questions about what is a political party and also whether our parties are worth the time, the energy and money expended on them. 

Are parties necessary?

There has always been controversy the world over as to what constitutes a party as opposed to an interest group, a cabal, a faction or a gang. 

The classic European definition was given by Edmund Burke, a British member of Parliament in the 18th century. 

According to Burke, a party is a group of men/women who come together to give effect to a cause or a purpose to which they are in general agreement. Few parties fit that formal definition. Most are entrepreneurial organisations which masquerade as parties and which pretend to be acting on behalf of a class, the national interest or some such demographic abstraction. Most claim to be “national” or “democratic”.

There has however been debate about whether mass parties can be democratic or whether most are governed by what has been called the “iron law of oligarchy” which in effect says that the larger a party, the less democratic it inevitably becomes: a mass party can only act effectively if it is led by a few of its leaders. 

There is currently a global mood which argues that political parties inhibit  political democracy and good governance. 

Such views have been articulated in Trinidad and Tobago. 

The claim is that although  our parties have leaders who are formally elected, they are more or less “owned” by elements who have money or access to it. 

The latter literally own the organisation and manipulate support using various vote shopping strategies just as other businesses do. In this framework, elections are never really “free and fair”, whether the party uses a delegate system or one based on a “one man one vote” principle. 

Those who lose, as Mr Panday did in 2010, immediately allege that they “wuz robbed”. 

The cry is ritualistic, and is meant to provide the winners with a licence to capture resources and losers with a rhetorical base with which to keep their supporters mobilised and ready for future encounters.  

I suspect this is what Mr Panday is about. His aim is to dislodge the current leadership of the UNC and replace it with an alternative that would include the old war horses whom he led in struggle at the Aranjuez Savannah  The base of the alliance will include the sugar union

Interestingly, Panday has always been of the view that he “owned” the UNC and resented the fact that some “Jackass” had dared to claim otherwise. “Ownership” by the masses in sugar was a convenient myth.  He saw himself as  the iconic leader of the party who should be an object of veneration and  treated kindly and decently since he had to “live with himself”.

He could not be treated as if he was a mere shareholder. Eric Williams also at times behaved as if he was vested with the mandate of heaven and owned the PNM. Manning, for his part, argued that the role of the party was to support the leadership.

Similar behaviour is evident in respect of the leader of the Independent Liberal Party (ILP). 

The circumstances under which the party emerged leaves no doubt that its avowed purpose was to capture power. 

Warner would of course argue that he was forced out of the UNC by a cabal, and that the party groups chose him to be their candidate and not Khadijah Ameen. The decision as to whether he should form a party  was one that  was forced upon him.

He had no choice.

Whatever the truth as to whether Warner was forced out of the party or whether that outcome was engineered, the fact is that the party constructively belongs to Jack. What is now of interest  is what will be the ILP’s future’s stance  in relation to the UNC and the PNM. Warner’s comments seem to indicate that he intends to be entrepreneurial, and that the ILP would give way to the UNC if it showed  evidence of resurrection. It is however not clear what would come of the UNC if it splits into two wings, one led by Panday and Ramjack, and the other led by Kamla et al. What will happen to those who left the UNC to go to the ILP? Will they pay a price for having been prodigal?

Amidst the confusion, what is assured that there would not be any authoritative  institution which could deal authoritatively with the condensing parties.  Our constitution does not recognise parties. It recognises candidates for elections and Members of Parliament. As the chairman of the EBC, Norbert Masson, recently reminded us, a party is a business and should be treated as such.

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