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Taking Trinidad’s Political Temperature
by Mark T. Jones Bookmark and Share

Those who routinely dismiss politics as boring have evidently never experienced elections in Trinidad & Tobago. With a key bi-election on 4th November 2013 things look certain to become hot, hot, hot.

St Joseph takes considerable pride in the fact that as San José de Oruña from 1592-1783 was the capital of Trinidad. The constituency is racially balanced, with a mixture of the comfortably off as well as those who struggle to make ends meet. St Joseph invariably acts as a bell-weather that enables local psephologists to gain a fair indication of what the mood of the country is. In addition this bi-election has added importance in that it was triggered by former MP Herbert Volney’s decision to resign from the United National Congress (UNC) and join the Independent Liberal Party (ILP). Such an important election has ensured that there has been considerable interest in the candidates and some appear to be far from run of the mill.

Crime and illegal activity has long been a pre-occupation and concern of the islands’ inhabitants and so it came of little surprise that TV6’s show Crime Watch proved to be so popular. The show ensured that its hosts Ian Alleyne and Om Lalla have become household names, a fact that both figures have sought to capitalize upon by entering the political arena. Alleyne, a man with an extremely high sense of his own worth and Lalla, a fiercely bright and ambitious individual forged a powerful partnership on screen and an extraordinary close friendship off screen. In television terms Crime Watch became something of a phenomenon, a show that with the additional credibility of the presence of Police Inspector Roger Alexander, appeared to be on a mission to become the scourge of criminal behavior. For all their celebrity status, the two hosts as self-proclaimed guardians of public safety have at times proved more than fallible. Alleyne has been no stranger to controversy having in the past compared himself with the Messiah. He demonstrated a gross error of judgment and extremely bad taste when the program he fronted (and has the local rights too) showed footage of a teenage girl being raped with her face and that of the attacker clearly visible. The adverse reaction for TV6 was such that when his contract was up for renewal they chose not to renew it and he moved Crime Watch to CNC3.

Politics in Trinidad and Tobago is no stranger to characters with a bibulous Prime Minister and the ever artful Jack Warner on the scene things are definitely lively. Visibility and brand identity have become the name of the game and so it should come of no real surprise that media personalities, whether good, bad or indifferent have been courted by parties across the political spectrum. Alleyne ever the man of principle declared that he had no political aspirations or desire to enter the government even though the UNC allegedly offered him TT$ 250,000 to appear on its platform. A sizeable carrot in the form of the post of Minister for National Security is believed to have dangled by the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General, yet still Alleyne insisted; “I am not for sale.” and denounced Jack Warner, the Founder and Leader of the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) as a liar for suggesting otherwise. Who knows what brought about his own Damascene conversion, but on the very day that the nominations for candidature for the St Joseph’s bi-election had to be in Alleyne declared his hand and announced that he was willing to stand for the UNC. Local comedians had a field day, suggesting that Crime Watch change its name to The Price is Right and mocking Alleyne by saying he may not be for sale, but he is certainly for rent. The fall-out has apparently been even more far reaching in that Alleyne’s Crime Watch co-host and soul-mate who had long harbored political aspirations felt that he had been cheated out of the UNC candidature and as a consequence he has flounced off to stand for the ILP. As for Police Inspector Alexander he has been eager to disassociate himself from Alleyne. And people say politics is dull.

The People’s National Movement (PNM) has opted for a safe, stolid and seemingly uninspiring candidate in the form of Senator Terrence Deyalsingh. The sought of person who the residents of poorer neighborhoods of the constituency such as Bangladesh would describe as stush. That said, for all the air of respectability that the PNM is keen to convey some of its party supporters have been more than happy to turn up at ILP meetings in PNM jersey’s carrying placards, something that has caused more than a few ripples of disapproval. Walkabouts and the obligatory photo-opportunities are as ever the meet and drink of elections. For a candidate who has made a name for himself exposing criminality, it seems somewhat incongruous that Alleyne appears happy to surround himself on his walkabouts with known bandits, drug lords and other members of the criminal fraternity. Recently one unfortunate resident who dared to announce that he had no intention of voting for Ian Alleyne was immediately set upon and repeatedly punch in the face, such was the atmosphere of menace and intimidation that the victim preferred not to report the incident to the police.

Students of politics in Trinidad & Tobago will of course be interested in the following five areas:

  • to study long-term trends in voting behavior
  • to explain the election outcome
  • to explain party choice
  • to explain turnout
  • to examine the consequences of elections for the operation of democracy more generally

The mainstream media locally, especially the print media, appears only to be interested in the long established parties or those with deep pockets. This myopic approach means that they often neglect and overlook some of the other candidates. One of the most fascinating is Error Fabien, a man who has the potential to do for local politics what Beppe Grillo and Movimento 5 Stelle (5 Star Movement) has done for Italian politics. Fabien, whilst a well know figure, has known real hardship during his time and has chosen to stand as an independent. A comedian, media personality and entrepreneur in his own right he has set out to engage with those who the ruling elite often overlook or ignore. The fact that he was already well known meant that he found himself courted by a range of parties eager for him to stand on their ticket. The Congress of the People (COP), ILP, PNM and the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) all made approaches. The MSJ has subsequently decided to put up a candidate and have endorsed Fabien as the best candidate. The UNC chose to make a number of calls (Three in the space of three hours) to discourage him from standing. Winston ‘Gypsy’ Peters, Member of Parliament for Mayaro and one time Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism was one of those who telephoned Fabien and informed him that in standing for election he would lose out professionally and financially. Fabien claims that his motivation for entering the political arena has been the current state of affairs within the constituency and beyond. “...the tone and absence of respect in Parliament undermines faith in the system” he says with conviction. “People have been failed by successive MPs and so it is essential that if I am elected I set about getting the job done.“ In common with other candidates he recognizes that crime, marginalization, discrimination and lack of employment opportunities are major pre-occupations. Anecdotally, Fabien’s modest and non-confrontational approach has already had a direct impact on the other candidates’ campaigns, all of whom have suddenly begun to endeavor to convey a more personal and emotional message.

Cynically the Government has recently issued Certificates of Comfort for many of the poorest people residing and in many cases squatting in the rundown district of Bangladesh. This is a particularly shameful ploy aimed at garnering votes under false pretenses for unbeknown to local people these certificates such as they are do not meet the requirements for future development. Such a move is indicative of the utter contempt which some of those who walk the corridors of power have for those they are meant to serve. Parliamentary democracy in Trinidad & Tobago whilst not in crisis is certainly in desperate need of fresh blood and new ideas. Seasoned Red House watchers frequently comment on the fact that the standards of conduct are not what they once were. Michael Lopez the Democratic National Assembly (DNA) candidate standing in St Joseph is one of a number of people who are advocating root and branch reform. The sense of disillusionment with the political establishment is creating series fissures within society. Furthermore widespread political corruption and paranoia in the Government is even said to have resulted in regular monitoring of the calls and communications of political rivals and other private citizens sanctioned by those in power and paid for by the State. The St Joseph bi-election campaign elucidates something of current challenges and should help give locals and the wider international community an insight into whether the country is prepared to put up with the status quo or decides to opt for a different approach. One thing is for certain, when the results are announced the Prime Minister Kamala Persaud-Bissesar can be relied upon to be defiant and more than likely ‘tired and emotional’ – hic.

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