The general election of 2015 is long behind us, but all the political parties remain in full campaign mode.
Cognisant of the potential impact of belt-tightening, the PNM has sought to have regular conversations with the electorate. The UNC has continued its Monday Night Forum and will hold early leadership elections later this month. The COP, too, will also have its own leadership election even as it struggles to convince the population of its relevance. Into this mix, the MSJ, which has a poor record of performance at all elections it has ever contested, said last week it is preparing for 2020. Over in Tobago, Watson Duke has been swimming.
It’s easy to be bemused by all of this. But in a sense, it is all a sign that our democracy is alive and well.
Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s decision to bring forward internal UNC elections may well be in line with the party’s rules but it is hardly so with the idea of fixed leadership terms, something she once proposed for prime ministers. Notwithstanding unanimous party approval, her decision raises questions over the degree of power afforded to the party’s political leader; the space for open dissent; and the ability of the party to be responsive to contemporaneous issues as they arise. Though Persad-Bissessar says the decision is about being ready for the demise of the PNM administration, in reality the move is more about bolstering the UNC ahead of any developments.
Having only one contender running against Persad-Bissessar is, nonetheless, a sign of the Opposition Leader’s hold within in the party. Vasant Bharath’s entry into the fray, as well as the open criticism of the leader’s decision to bring forward the internal election, however, is a sign that even long-standing members of the UNC feel comfortable enough to criticise their leader. That, at least, is a good thing for Trinidad and Tobago’s political landscape. How can we expect an Opposition to question those in power if it is not itself open to criticism?
Bharath’s prediction of UNC defeat at the polls resonates strongly with the party’s recent record. While Persad-Bissessar has convincingly dispatched of competitors in the past in internal elections, the party she leads must be growing nervous of the fact that it has lost five elections in a row.
The challenge the UNC faces, then, ironically looks much like the challenge currently being faced by the PNM administration. Both parties need to convince the population that they are about substance and not just sound and fury.
Of course there is a place for ventilating issues of corruption and wrong-doing. But there is also a place for enumerating plans. It is little use to tell us how bad the government of the day is or how bad the previous government was without setting forth a clear path ahead.
The PNM Government has a legislative agenda, but little attention has been paid to fleshing out its details or truly engaging the public on some of the elements. Lack of revenue is not the only problem. Notwithstanding its conversations, the PNM often appears more reactive than proactive. Too often its internal thinking is obscure to the general public.
Meanwhile, the Opposition is quick to point out missteps and errors on the part of the Government, but at this stage we need to hear more about how it is going to solve the problems it left lingering from its one term in office.
Both parties – and the focus is on two parties since the COP experience shows our electoral system largely remains two-party – currently exert tremendous influence over the political aura of the nation. They have the potential to change the style and manner of our public discourse. The question is whether they are capable of moving beyond the complacency of politics aligned with race and bachannal to politics that prioritises issues. In an increasingly fraught world, we need more of the latter.
There have been some encouraging signs of healthy debate being productive, such with the child marriage abolition law. That was a good example of what a boisterous political process can achieve at little cost: an improvement of society for the greater good.