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Trinidad the battle site

Mother of all elections

November 05, 2000
By Kim Johnson

AS elections approach the question is whether the United National Congress (UNC) will follow its three predecessors—the Chambers PNM, the Robinson NAR, and the Manning PNM, to become our fourth one-term government, or whether it will hold on to office for another term.

Factors operating against the UNC are many. They include the widespread sense of a brazen corruptness that goes way beyond the normal and expected kickbacks.

The Piarco contract and its highpriced bifolding doors, the seemingly politically-motivated murder of Hansraj Sumairsingh, the police investigation of electorate padding, InnCogen and other such scandals have added to a widespread revulsion from Prime Minister Basdeo Panday's public attitude to critics. In this light CCN Chairman Ken Gordon's libel victory over Panday, was welcomed by many.

Perhaps Panday has not alienated any hardcore supporters through his belligerence, his continuous talk about racism, his repeated declarations of war, and his contemptuous flippancy towards people voicing legitimate concerns. But he has certainly got the back up among people who would have otherwise stayed away from the polls.

Additionally, among his own footsoldiers and even UNC lieutenants, Panday has fomented considerable discord. Some of it is deliberate, to maintain his own pre-eminence within the party. Most, however, has to do with his new-found friends, such as Carlos John, Jack Warner and Lawrence Duprey, who have edged out many a formerly loyal and now bitter UNC soldier.

Will these negatives amount to enough to sway those voters who can be swayed?

There are powerful factors operating in Panday's favour too, one of the most important being the lackluster performance of Patrick Manning.

Again not counting the die-hard supporters, this time of the PNM, it is difficult to find anyone enthusiastic about the prospect of Patrick Manning regaining power. His five years in Opposition have confirmed what he established during his five years in power—a dullness that is matched only by his remarkable smugness.

On no issue over the past five years has Manning shown himself to be a leader capable of mobilising people, or even helping them when they mobilised themselves, as did the Toco residents most recently. Consequently, even people who have been repelled by Panday's behaviour find it very difficult to endorse Manning.

Instead, they might just refrain from voting. Thus, an important factor on December 11 plays out is whether one revulsion is sufficiently strong to overpower the other, if dislike to Panday is strong enough to overlook a dislike for Manning.

Besides, notwithstanding Manning's absolute lack of appeal, however, if he has nothing else at least he has a sense of the decorum that the office requires. There have been no gossip of his drunkenness or filthy language.

Also operating in Panday's favour, although it is difficult to read the extent, is the performance of the economy, which has been booming in recent years. The surest indicators are the brand new (and foreign-used) cars which crowd the roads, and the shiny, tall buildings which have sprung up throughout Port of Spain, and in the country generally.

Apart from the immediate pre-election gifts, such as the (temporarily) smooth roads in the marginal constituencies, there have been many others given or promised. Already given were: the abolition of tax exit certificates, import duty on computers, secondary education for all children. Promised are: reduction of mortgage rates for homeowners.

Tobago is neither allied with the UNC nor with the PNM. The sister isle seems to be heading for the opposition benches, where they sat out the 1970s and half of the 1980s. Which means that the “mother of all elections” will be fought in Trinidad.

Elections in Trinidad and Tobago have tended to be seen in racial terms, with Indians voting for an Indian party, and Africans voting for the PNM. If there was a 17:17 tie here between the PNM and the UNC, five seats are considered “marginal” and quite capable of falling one way or the other.

And in 1995 there was a turnout 63.3 per cent of the electorate. That means that if everyone voted the same way as before, there is still a large number of voters—over 400,000—who can come out in favour of one side, or alternatively, who can refrain from supporting the other party.

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