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Raffique Shah


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Gambling on bare Jack

By Raffique Shah
January 20, 2013

The ferocity with which the two main parties, the PNM and the People's Partnership (yes, the PP!), fought the 2013 THA election, suggests that they see this battle for an anticipated 25,000 or so votes as a life-and-death struggle. Maybe it is, although I venture to add that this prognosis applies more to the Partnership than the PNM, as I shall argue. The intensity of the campaign, the media, ground and cyberspace advertising and propaganda blitz, which must have cost at least $50 million, certainly surprised me.

Up until November when Orville London advised the President to dissolve the THA and name a date for elections, I must confess that I had not given much thought to the looming political showdown. Like most Trinis, I imagine, I saw the elections as a battle for Tobago turf between London's PNM and Ashworth Jack's TOP. Of course, with TOP being an integral, even critical, part of the Partnership government, I expected Jack's partners to lend him support as he sought to wrest control of the THA from the PNM.

What I did not envisage was that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her Partnership government would buy the fight, quite literally. Because while such direct intervention could pay some dividends if the TOP topples the PNM, should the PNM retain control, or worse, increase its majority in the THA, the backlash for the Partnership could be severe.

Put another way, should the PNM lose the elections, it would mean that the party's losing streak, which started in the May 2010 general elections and included the two Tobago seats, is on an extended run. Keith Rowley's leadership would come under scrutiny yet again. And the PNM would have to re-group, maybe re-make itself if it is to remain a potent political force on the national landscape.

In a worst-case scenario, a routing in tomorrow's polls could leave the PNM fighting for survival.

Maybe these latter prospects, tantalising as they are (no more PNM … jeezanages!), enticed the Partnership leadership and strategists to commit themselves as fully as they have done to what otherwise might have been little more than an ordinary poll. With a very visible hand, they have ploughed serious resources into these elections, gambling big that Jack will win.

I referred earlier to a multi-million-dollar advertising blitz—it could be costlier than $50 million—that has attracted much attention, and maybe some support.

No one believes that Jack and the TOP are paying even a fraction of that bill. If he is, then surely he has found the magical beanstalk! It's one thing to grow and sell pumpkins (among other activities) to afford a million-dollar house, over which I take no issue. It's quite another to be seen throwing around tens of millions of dollars, commandeering beaches and resorts, and so on, based on home-based financial support.

Clearly, the Partnership has bought the fight with a war chest that's bursting at the seams—which is a two-edged weapon. The perception that Trinidad-based financiers are funding the TOP campaign could turn off potential supporters who might see it as interference in the island's internal affairs.

The heavy presence of Trinidad-based politicians on the TOP platform may prove to be counter-productive. In contrast, Rowley was the only Trinidad-PNM speaker on his party's platform, and in any event, he is Tobagonian by birth.

Although I cannot claim to understand Tobago's peculiar culture, I sense that Tobagonians resent Trinidadians who appear to be imposing our ways and our will on them.

During the first THA elections in 1980, some of my colleagues and I from the fractured ULF offered to speak on Ray Robinson's DAC platform as he took on the might of the PNM. Ray welcomed our support but asked that we stay away from the island until election-eve (the Sunday).

A few of us made the trip and were present at meetings at Charlotteville, Roxborough and Scarborough. I was the only one invited to speak at the final stop.

Back then, and for several THA elections afterwards, Trinidadians who campaigned for either party were branded “strangers”. It could well be that Tobagonians welcome the Partnership ministers, especially the Prime Minister, who has all but taken up residence on the island. After all, they are in government and they can make things happen.

The PM chose the campaign trail to deliver an NGC natural gas facility at Cove, a new NP service station at Roxborough, and yet another promise to start reconstruction of the airport terminal and associated structures. These, and other “gifts”, may influence more of the electorate to vote TOP.

It would be interesting to see how Tobagonians react and respond to the frenzied, glitzy, ultra expensive campaign the two main parties mounted. In the 2009 elections, when Jack's TOP made its debut (succeeding the NAR), around 56 per cent of 40,000 electors voted. Although the PNM won eight of 12 districts to control the THA, it did so by the narrowest of margins, polling 51 per cent of the votes cast. Bear in mind there was no Partnership back then, hence no “foreign” intervention in the elections, and nothing remotely close to the expensive campaign blitz we are witnessing this time around.

The only result that would be positive for the Partnership is a landslide victory for the TOP. A narrow win would be nice, but it would hardly justify the Partnership's multi-million-dollar investment and the avalanche of ministers who entered the cockpit to crow for Jack.

It could get worse. If the underdog-PNM manages to hold on to the THA or improve its standing, that would be bad news for the Partnership. With local government elections in Trinidad looming on the horizon, it would be folly to have gambled so much on bare-Jack when your opponents might hold Ace, King, and who knows, even Queen.

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