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Raffique Shah


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Ten years and a 'po'

By Raffique Shah
October 14, 2012

Recently, as I mused on the state of "permanent politicking" that citizens of this country have been victims of for decades, I thought, why not elect a government for ten or 20 years? Before readers condemn me to the gallows for instant execution, or cart me off to the lunatic asylum to spend what is left of my miserable life, hear me out. Over the past 21 years, we have had—what?—seven general elections. We have changed governments four times and faces in government at least ten times.

In conventional thinking, such record would be deemed "robust democracy". You hear it around all the time: they play the fool, we go vote them out! Good. But what do we have to show for the regime-changes we have made? Given this country's abundant resources, especially its human resource, are we as a nation better off today than we were two decades ago? Better put, have we realised anything close to our real potential?

Some people might point to certain material benefits—better housing, more appliances, more private vehicles, more tertiary-level graduates, changing skylines—as symbols of significant progress. Yet, when we look at East Port of Spain, to name the most prominent of our depressed districts, we see the ugly side of the country, a manifestation of what those seven elections, and however many before them, failed to change.

Civic-mindedness has all but disappeared, making way for wanton lawlessness, from top to bottom. We have so many educational institutions, but far fewer educated people. Personal hygiene has deteriorated. Nastiness is now a national plague. Our highways and byways are permanently clogged with traffic.

In spite of claims to the contrary, crime stalks the average citizen at every corner, even in the sanctuary of his humble abode or secured mansion.

All of these ills and a whole lot more after however many elections and changing faces in government. It cannot be that all the persons elected to office were evil, crooked, intent on self-enrichment. There must have been patriots among them, men and women who wanted to pursue noble goals, to uplift their country. But along the way, either they got lost or they decided it was futile swimming against the tide.

There may be another reason for this stagnation. A party or coalition of parties spends one to five years campaigning to get into office. Its principals promise to transform the economy from its near-absolute dependence on dwindling oil and gas resources. They offer seemingly attractive alternatives to take us to new levels. We are treated to expositions on a knowledge-based economy, on the magic that technology can weave, on how broadband can turn T&T into a Singapore. They will focus on food security, achieving self-sufficiency in short order. They will reduce crime, budget-style, to a deficit, and more, much more.

The electorate, exasperated by the shenanigans and shortcomings of the incumbents, falls for the promises of nirvana, and presto, come elections we have a new government … for five years. Now, the more discerning among us know that many of the promises on which the new government is elected are either unrealistic, or long-term goals that cannot be achieved in five years.

Inevitably, the new regime reneges on some of its "instant" promises, and, recognising that campaigning and governance are poles apart, opt to dive straight back into campaigning for the next elections. So rather than steer the economy in a direction that could bring long-term prosperity, but which requires short-term sacrifices by all, especially the ten per cent at the top of the incomes-ladder, it continues with unsustainable populist measures. Re-election comes before restructuring.

We have witnessed this repeatedly over the past however many governments. They remain in the campaign mode, later for good governance. And the masses lap it up: URP, CEPEP, contracts for communities and community leaders, colour me orange or red white and black. Remove VAT from non-essential, especially pigtails, and Muslims in the crowd are delirious: Allah hu Akbar! Manning's choice was the PoS skyline (even as the city's drains and drainage stank), and the natives chanted: we looking like New York.

So, realistically, we are going to be stuck with mediocrity for as many years ahead of us as we have behind us. Why not try something different? Give the jokers ten or 15 years in office, guaranteed—with certain strict caveats.

Not having to face elections in five years offers them time to execute long-term policies that could change the country for better. Instead of deficit budgets, which started back in 2009, they could balance the damn thing and not expand the 2012 public sector debt sinkhole that stands at an alarming $51 billion. Social programmes could be confined to the really needy, not "hampers for all" or "colour me dollars".

Give them time, allow them space to perform, security of tenure … of sorts. Because such latitude must come with constraints. What must citizens demand in return? First, parties must produce their policies, programmes and promises clearly and concisely in a legal document that everyone who runs for office, or who is appointed to office, must sign. The other legal document they must sign (and I won't recommend it be drafted by the current AG) is one that holds all of them liable if they fail to deliver on any and every thing they committed themselves to.

A People's Tribunal, elected referendum-style, would be the body to adjudicate on matters arising from these agreements between the government and the governed. Punishment for any breach? We could start with ten years in jail, no appeals permitted. Leaders could fetch "ah twenty". We would add perks: after all, we are not primitive. So, one cell per culprit, guaranteed … and a stainless steel "pozy"!

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