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Keeping PNM Honest

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 16, 2008

Five months ago, the PNM was elected to serve as the Government of the people of T&T although it received 43 per cent of the votes.

On that November night, after hearing the results of the elections I, among others, streamed down to Balisier House to celebrate yet another victory. We were elated that our party had captured government for another five years.

Five months after that victory troubling signs are making their way across the brow of our great party.

Consider the present scenario. Some weeks ago the Prime Minister fired Keith Rowley from his Cabinet. Upset by the decision, Rowley's party group petitioned the General Council to hold a special meeting to discuss the matter. One is yet to hear from the General Council.

Less we forget, the primary business of the general secretary is to represent the members' interests and ensure that their concerns are heard. It is expected that the matter will be discussed at the General Council on Saturday.

Then there is the issue as to whether the Prime Minister's decision can be discussed at the party level. Reports from within the party suggest that the party has no right to question the Prime Minister's decisions, which leads to the following questions: did the Government elect the party or did the party elect the Government? Is the Prime Minister responsible to the party or is the party merely a pliant tool in the hands of the Prime Minister?

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that the party is the supreme instrument of its members' will, whereas the government serves as a vehicle to carry out the party's will. If this is not true then a party manifesto is a farce and the party's work to elect a government is tantamount to an exercise in self-delusion. One cannot excise the party from decision making once a government is put in place through the work of its party members.

South Africa is a sovereign state whose political system is analogous to that of T&T. The ANC (the party) elects a government. Its political leader (Thabo Mbeki) becomes the President (akin to our PM) of the nation. There is turmoil in the party. Its members claim that Mbeki is out of touch with their sentiments and does not consider the legitimate demands of party members.

Jacob Zuma is elected political leader because of this dissatisfaction. Zuma's position remains tenuous since he is scheduled to face a corruption charge in August.

About a week ago, the party (ANC) asked Mbeki (President) to appoint Kgalem Mothlanthe, ANC's deputy president, to serve in Parliament and in Mr Mbeki's cabinet. No one interpreted such a request as the party interfering with the President's prerogatives. Members of the party insisted on their right to ask the President to consider their views vis a vis Cabinet appointments.

Emphasising the centrality of the party in government affairs, ANC's general secretary, Gwede Mantashe, not only made the party's request known to the President, he also made it public at a press conference.

I do not know if Mantashe asked for Mbeki's approval before he made his public announcement—he would have had to inform him—but his action demonstrates the distinction between the function of the general secretary and that of the political leader.

CLR James, the former editor of the Nation, the PNM weekly, made two observations that are pertinent to what is taking place today. In A Convention Appraisal he noted that "no human being can at the same time run a government and direct the organisation of a party," not even Dr Williams.

The Case for Party Politics in the West Indies reminded us that after a people elect a government they have a duty "to remain politically alert, and make it clear that they are not to be bamboozled, trifled with or pushed around."

It follows that a people must always be ready to express their wishes; a government must always be cognisant of their sentiments.

This is why the Prime Minister's response to the Udecott matter was heartening. Although the Prime Minister must have a certain leeway to ensure that his programmes (or the programmes of the party) are implemented, he cannot stray to the point where it is perceived that the ordinary member of the party has little influence in the business of government. In this sense, the centrality of Calder Hart in the affairs of the Government remains suspiciously troubling.

Forty-seven years ago, James warned that a government should never take the power of the people for granted. He noted that any government "that is not conscious of the power of the people is bound to be a bad government. That is to say, it will fool you, cheat you, and if need be, reduce you to hewers of wood and drawers of water, and without mercy keep you in what it considers your place."

A PNM government must be more sensitive to the wishes of its members and the general public. A democratic PNM can only be a blessing to the people of T&T. It must strive always towards broadening democratic practices.

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