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'Tobago ethnicity awakened with a vengeance'

Voter turnout highest in 28 years

By Kevin Baldeosingh

In 1984, which was the only other time there was a 70 per cent voter turnout for the Tobago House of Assembly election, the People's National Movement got just one district. On January 21 this year, with another record number of people going to the polls, the PNM took all 12 districts on the island. Even in 1980, when the THA was created by Act 37 of 1980 for "making better provision for the administration of the island of Tobago and for matters therein", only 66 per cent of the electorate came out to vote. Since then, voter turnout has averaged 55 per cent.

With just over 46,000 eligible voters, this means that nearly 7,000 people who ordinarily wouldn't have voted came out to cast their ballots. So why did Tobagonians come out in higher numbers than they had in the past 28 years? Was it because of racism, as alleged by UNC chairman Jack Warner and Attorney General Anand Ramlogan? Or was it fear, as asserted by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar?

Political analyst Kirk Meighoo says the key factors were ethnicity, not race. "Tobagonians voted on an island nationalist basis, which IS an ethnic basis, but not a racial basis. There is a big difference between race and ethnicity," he explained to the Sunday Express in an e-mail response. "Insofar as politics is mobilised ethnically — in that wider sense of ethnicity — then the Tobago ethnicity was awakened with a vengeance."

In a 2008 paper titled "Ethnic Mobiolisation vs Ethnic Politics, Meighoo argued that "what analysts claim as 'racialist' politics in Trinidad and Tobago amounts to not much more than competition for office and demands for a share of Government patronage in terms of jobs, business contracts, directorships, State funding, and so on. As a rule, political parties stress their national character, and play down any ethnic bias. They regularly claim that the other political parties are ethnic, while they are national."

But one of the main talking points of the campaign was a statement by then-Deputy Chief Secretary Hilton Sandy that a "ship from Calcutta" was ready to invade Tobago if the People's Partnership won the election. On election night, Indira Rampersad, a lecturer in UWI's International Relations Department, asserted on the State-owned CNMG TV panel that "Whether that statement was actually said in error, I would say no. I would say that it was a carefully thought out strategy because it evoked a response and I think that was also planned." Rampersad added, "If it evoked a response it would create and play on the minds of the Tobagonian and I think we see the plans by the PNM to secure victory and we can say it certainly worked."

In the 2010 general election, 60 per cent of the Tobago electorate voted and the Tobago Organisation of the People took the island's two seats with 55 per cent of the total votes cast. In the THA election two weeks ago, the PNM received 61 per cent of the votes, while the TOP, which in 2009 had won four districts, got just 31 per cent. But averaging the percentages in Table 2 shows the PNM's core support in Tobago comprises just 45 per cent of the electorate. And even that average can drop to 33 per cent, as happened in 1996. This implies that the 15 per cent of irregular voters who went to the polls for the 2013 THA election didn't vote for the PNM per se, but against the People's Partnership. In fact, a poll conducted in December by UWI"s Sociology Division implies that most Tobagonians would be unhappy about the PNM's redwash, since the majority polled did not want Tobago to be run entirely by the THA.

But what motivated the irregular voters to come out?

"This election touched THE most important or passion-invoking political issue in Tobago, which is the political status of the island," Meighoo says. He accuses Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar of attempting to undermine the THA for partisan reasons since she took office. "Her efforts even went so far as to undermine the THA's exercise in furthering self-government for Tobago. The People's Partnership bill was obviously made for political gain, at the last minute, and rightly interpreted as insincere," he asserts. "In the campaign, it was clear that Ashford Jack and the TOP were under the control of the People's Partnership from Trinidad, and the dominating presence of the Ministers, who clearly did very little show that they understood Tobago, and perhaps very much to actively show that they did not understand Tobago politics. Tobagonians saw this as an 'invasion', and this is the context in which the 'ship from Calcutta' statement was made."

Meighoo also notes that Tobago's main parties in the past, the Democratic Action Congress and the National Alliance for Reconstruction, had always been in some political relationship with UNC founder Basdeo Panday's Hindu base. "The Tobagonian-Hindu connection has been very important historically, partly based on the 'peasant' or agricultural ethos," he argued.

Meighoo was not surprised that TOP leader Ashworth Jack was defeated. "In 2010, it seemed superficially as though the TOP inherited Robinson's DAC mantle," he says. "But Robinson was not fully behind the TOP, and as an individual Ashworth Jack did not have the political capital of Robinson or even Hochoy Charles. So it was always a shaky foundation."

Meighoo also points to the Keith Rowley factor in the PNM victory. "One cannot discount the fact that Rowley — the 'Tobago boy' — had then wrested leadership of the PNM from Patrick Manning in a long campaign. This is the first time a Tobagonian has led the PNM and must be seen as historic," he says.

So what does the PNM sweep in the THA poll imply for the general election in 2015? Meighoo says, "Lloyd Best's axiom that Tobago is politically half of the country is basically true. Tobago's influence and importance goes beyond their numbers. We will be more sure and less speculative about the 12-0 THA effect with the local government elections this year."

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