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Raffique Shah


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Democracy: dollars determine who wins

January 25, 2004
By Raffique Shah

BACK in 1970, in the aftermath of the Black Power revolution when dozens of political detainees were still imprisoned, Presbyterian minister Reverend Dr Roy Nehall described democracy in this country as "five minutes spent in a polling booth once every five years." Nehall, an outspoken priest with a passion for fighting for justice, was delivering the feature address at a major conference here when he made the assertion. It was an apt description for what existed then, and even today, not only in Trinidad and Tobago, but in most of the so-called democratic states in the world.

Now, the man who is described as "The Elvis of Academia", MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, has coined a word that I rather like to replace Nehall's description. "Polyarchy", Chomsky says, best describes a political system "of elite decision and periodic public ratification." Applying it to what passes for politics in the USA, he recalled in a recent interview that in the presidential elections of 2000 in the US, "about 75 per cent (of the population) regarded it as mostly a farce having nothing to do with them, a game played by rich contributors, party bosses, and the public relations industry."

Chomsky went on to quote leading American social philosopher John Dewey, who apparently wrote extensively on democracy (I must get around to reading his works). Dewey concluded that until there is democratic control of the primary economic institutions, politics will be "the shadow cast on society by big business." He was, of course, referring to what passes for democracy in the USA. Is it much different in this country, or indeed, in most Western democracies?

Maybe the main difference is the quantum of money that candidates in the US presidential race raise through their financiers. In the run up to the 2004 presidential elections everyone knows it's a straight fight between incumbent President George Bush and one Democrat from among a handful of hopefuls.

Indeed, having won the first "primary" in Iowa, John Kerry is already seen as a shoo-in for candidacy. Kerry mauled pre-race favourites Wesley Clarke and Howard Dean. Dean hopes to move to the front of the race in New Hampshire, a small state with a population of barely 1.2 million people, which is considered the proving ground in the presidential race.

But the "poor fella" could well find himself left in the starting blocks for a number of reasons. Dean, you see, has declared himself firmly against America's "war" in Iraq, which pits him against many voters who are pro-war, and more important, big business that have billion-dollar stakes in Bush's war against the "Axis of Evil" .

But there are other factors that may well put Dean in the boondocks. Born into a rich Republican family (his father was a successful stockbroker), Dean insisted on rooming with Black students when he attended Yale. His father never allowed his college friends to visit.

His other sin was to have married a Jewish fellow-doctor, then he compounded his woes by supporting Jimmy Carter. He would move on to get involved in active politics with the Democrats, becoming governor of Vermont. And now he has evolved into the most radical candidate involved in the race to the White House.

Let's forget Dean for a minute. How many Trinidadians and Tobagonians are aware that there are dozens, maybe scores, of persons who are in the presidential race, some Democrats, others independent or belonging to small "fringe" parties? Among the "Dems" there's former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, retired General Wesley Clark, another of many serving or retired military stalwarts who oppose US involvement in Iraq and its slipshod, paranoid "war against terrorism". Clarke ran a distant second to Kerry in Iowa, with Dean even father back in third spot.

Among other Democrat challengers are Senator John Edwards, Richard Gephardt (old war horse, who I believe has since opted out), Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Joe Lieberman (Al Gore's running mate in 2000), Carol Braun (first Black woman in the Senate), and Al Sharpton (Black civil rights leader). Their names will hardly appear anywhere, with media focus being on the handful of front runners.

So Kerry is out front in this supposedly very democratic process in the country described as the "greatest democracy in the world". Why? Maybe it's because he's the richest member of Congress, and coming from the elite of the society, he can attract the funding necessary to carry the campaign against Bush. The incumbent is said to be on course to double what he had raised in the 2000 campaign, meaning US$200 million! Dean thinks he can match that by getting two million Americans to contribute $100 each: fat chance! Imagine a presidential campaign that costs, overall, more than the combined GDPs of maybe all Caribbean countries if we exclude Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, T&T and Jamaica. Chew on that when you think that democracy is supposed to reflect the voice of the majority.

What must be of concern to us is that we are fast copying US-style campaigning. Realistically, money has always "talked" in elections, from as far back as when we were a colony. It was in 1981, though, when Karl Hudson-Phillips introduced "glitz and glamour" to campaigning that money became more critical to a party's chance of winning elections.

That was in 1981, and Karl did get results: he won more votes than the opposition ULF, but because of our system, the ONR failed to win a seat. By 1986, the NAR-a combination of the rich ONR, the rebounding ULF and Ray Robinson's DAC-reaped a harvest of big bucks from big, medium and small business, not to add several shady characters. Today, elections are all about the financiers.

As the Trini saying goes, "who have more corn will feed more fowl" All parties must appeal to the masses to get their votes. But that's all they ever need from the middle-to-poor people in the society. In the end, much the way Bechtel and other big US firms are benefiting from largesse in "rebuilding" Iraq (who destroyed that country's infrastructure?), companies that support parties here are also beneficiaries when it comes to big contracts.

But there's a wind of change a-coming. In the US, although Bush is favoured to be re-elected, that's not a done deal. Americans are angry over rising poverty and unemployment, over having to meet billion-dollar bills they did not authorise over the State of the Union. There is a likelihood that the body-bags flying in from Baghdad and the widening of the rich-poor gap will send George Jnr back to the bush.