IT IS NOT just the $50 million in previously announced grants that have conveniently popped out of the oven in time for the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) elections.
It’s also the paving of roads, the signing of blank food-card forms, the promises of free daycare for overwhelmed parents, the vows to give out land, the proposals to build new hotels and the pledges from some politicians to make “ex gratia” payments to employed state workers for no reason in particular – and this is what we know of.
The issues surrounding the gifts being dangled before Tobago voters are much larger than one particular election race. They tie into a longstanding political culture in this country, in which the population has grown accustomed to expecting “election goodies.”
We saw similar issues arise during the last general election campaign, particularly in relation to the work of the Self-Help Commission when it was alleged only PNM constituencies were involved in grant-distribution ceremonies on the eve of the poll.
What the latest developments underline is the continued weaknesses of the regulation of political parties while in office, as well as the dysfunctional workings of the State which – over time and, perhaps, because of a lack of true accountability – has now crystallised into what people expect every election time: bribery.
But can you bribe someone by giving them what they are already entitled to?
There is another word for the withholding of services and support that the Government has a duty to provide: blackmail.
It might not be illegal to time things in a way that is favourable to the interests of one political party over another – though an arguable case could be made that we are witnessing the use of public office for private gain – but it is certainly morally bankrupt, if not corrupt.
Thousands of people all over the country have been rejected by the State for various forms of covid19 grant relief on the basis of not meeting criteria, not providing proper documentation, not being duly registered, or filing duplicitous claims.
Yet some politicians in Tobago see nothing amiss in cavalierly signing blank dole forms, regardless of what information is to be placed on them.
The way political campaigns are now being run potentially reduces our democracy to a hollow exercise in cynicism.
It all comes amid widespread flouting of rules on integrity in public life. Proposals for campaign-finance reform seem dead in the water. Public procurement laws that would reduce the scope for corruption are lost in limbo. As is reform of vastly outdated election laws.
If we had made progress in just one of these areas, we would have less cause to be concerned about all of the brazen overtures being made in broad daylight now.