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Raffique Shah


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Exercise in democracy

By Raffique Shah
July 03, 2011

As members of the COP vote today on who will lead the second biggest party in the People’s Partnership Government, I commend officials who organised the internal elections, as well as the candidates and members of the party, on a reasonably well executed electoral exercise. I shall not attempt to influence voters by stating my views on the contenders. Suffice to say that for all his shortcomings, Winston Dookeran set some high standards that whoever succeeds him would find difficult to maintain, far less exceed.

The mild-mannered Dookeran comes across as a weak leader in a political landscape that is littered with maximum leaders, egotistical maniacs, and others who seek to impose their authority by vocal-volume and vitriol. It takes someone with tremendous courage to turn his back on Basdeo Panday when the ex-UNC leader still commanded blind support among the “tribe”. Dookeran did better. He founded the COP, carved it out of nothing, and led it into the 2007 elections in which he defied the odds by garnering substantial votes.

He understood the politics of the day when, in 2010, after Kamla Persad-Bissessar had annihilated Panday in the UNC leadership elections, and Patrick Manning had machine-gunned the PNM out of contention, he agreed to immerse the COP into the Partnership. That act of self-sacrifice was critical to the Partnership’s resounding victory at the polls.

That the COP has suffered some body blows in the coalition government that emerged is something for which Dookeran cannot be blamed. True, as Robert Mayers has long argued, the parties in the People’s Partnership ought to have worked out the consultative parameters that would guide the Partnership in government. Time did not allow for such an exercise before the 2010 elections. However, that process should have been a priority item on the post-elections agenda.

Dookeran also showed sterling leadership qualities when he decided to step down from the COP mantle while he was still on top, but also when he came under fire from within the party. So you all think I am weak, I am not good enough to lead you? Well, go ahead and find a successor! He or she will learn that uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

I return to the campaign, to the exercise that has its advantages and disadvantages. The process of debates among the contenders, staged at venues spread across the country, is a good one. It allows the party’s membership to evaluate the candidates, especially when they field questions from the floor. More importantly, differences among them are debated, if not resolved, within the family, in a manner of speaking.

On the negative side, unseemly behaviour was displayed by some supporters, and at times, even by candidates. While we accept that politics is a form of warfare, the “foot soldiers” do not need to descend into the abyss of abuse to win the war. Nor should the “generals”, given that, once they remain members of the party, they must live with each other after the dust settles later today.

In January last year, the UNC engaged in a similar exercise in democracy. It differed from the COP’s in two ways. First, elections were held for all positions on the national executive, not just the leader. And second, the contending candidates, or slates of candidates, did not debate each other on the same platform.

That campaign was infinitely more acrimonious than the COP’s. Candidates did not simply hurl abuse at each other. They made wild allegations that were scandalous and slanderous. Without adducing a shred of evidence, certain candidates levelled charges against Kamla Persad-Bissessar that would make the much-maligned George Street “jammettes” blush.

Kamla, who conducted a relatively clean campaign, won those elections by a tsunami. Indeed, it was her conduct during that campaign that propelled her to the national platform in the general election a few months later. Again, she proved to be a pivotal to the PP’s popularity and its eventual victory. Which shows that one does not need to be nasty, to hurl abuses at one’s opponents, in order to gain political ground.

The PNM may now have to revisit its “closed shop” policy in conducting internal party affairs. As it stands, this party has historically relied on the system of party groups electing delegates, who, in turn, would vote for officers at the executive level, including the leader. This system is restrictive, even archaic. Keith Rowley met with some resistance when he raised the prospect of the party adopting the one-man one-vote system. If the PNM wants to remain mired in a mode that has passed its expiry date, it may well find that the party itself has expired!

On another note, there is widespread debate within and outside the PP fold over what the Partnership’s constituent parties have brought to the power-table. Many supposedly intelligent people argue that the UNC has 22 seats, giving it a clear majority with which it can govern without the COP, the TOP, MSJ and NJAC.

Dookeran’s response is that one cannot count the COP’s input in strict arithmetic. I agree with him. Could the UNC, entering the 2010 elections as a separate entity, have won the seats it did? I think not. Nor, indeed, would the COP have won the seats it did as a stand-alone party. Maybe the TOP, too, would have had problems in Tobago.

It is time the entities comprising the Partnership Government realise that they either stay together and survive, or implode as the NAR did well before the 1991 elections.

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