AFTER one term in office, the People’s Partnership (PP), a coalition of four political parties (originally five) has lost power in Trinidad and Tobago. Comprising the Indian Trinidadian-based United National Congress (UNC), the African-centred National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), the Tobago-based Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP), the Labour-based Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) and the Indian-led middle-class Congress of the People (COP), the PP rose to power in 2010 as the alternative to the country’s ethnically divided politics. It won 59.81% of the popular vote and 29 of the 41 seats in the National Assembly.
No party had won such a large chunk of the popular vote since the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) won 66% in 1986. Interestingly, NAR was also a coalition of parties or what economist Lloyd Best had dubbed a “party of parties.” Also, like PP, NAR was voted out of office after just one term. A comparative analysis by political scientists of the two experiences is eagerly awaited.
It is perhaps too early to tell what went wrong with the PP. There can be no doubt that factors such as government corruption, crime, a less than robust economy and cabinet instability played some role in the electoral decline of the partnership. But I feel that the two major factors in this regard were the erosion of the partnership that led to the perception of it as a one-party government and the concomitant return to the politics of the ethnic divide.
When the partnership was formed, the two major partners were the UNC and the COP which had won 29.7% and 22.6% of the popular votes respectively at the previous (2007) election. COP, which did not win any seats due to the first-past-the-post system, was a breakaway from the UNC. While it had drawn votes from both the UNC and the Peoples National Movement (PNM), most of its support came from the Indian-Trinidadian constituency. Its leader Winston Dookeran, had been a leader of the UNC but had fallen out with party leader and founder Basdeo Panday. COP, therefore, was able to merge the dissident UNC support with the old creole-middle class former NAR supporters. Of the other partners, TOP brought ANR Robinson’s old Tobago supporters. The MSJ and NJAC did not have electoral support, but they gave the partnership the appearance of ethnic (African- Trinidadian) balance at the level of the leadership.
The Partnership, therefore, began as one between near-equals (UNC and COP) with the smaller parties providing ethnic respectability and in the case of TOP actual African votes from Tobago. However, COP soon lost its independence and came to be seen as an appendage of the UNC. Dookeran resigned from the leadership and the Creole segment of the party peeled away and would eventually return to the PNM. This was inevitable. The COP-UNC merger meant the reuniting of the Indian-Trinidadian constituencies. With Kamla Persad-Bissessar as leader and Prime Minister, the PP was transformed into an Indian-based government. The MSJ left the partnership, even though one of its leaders Errol McLeod, remained. TOP lost its Tobago support and NJAC was there in name only. Popular African UNC leader Jack Warner left, or was thrown out, and Winston “Gypsy” Peters soon followed.
By the time we got to the 2015 election, the die was cast. It had become a case of ethnic competition again. The PP government was perceived by Africans as Indian hegemony. The PNM was able to galvanise African- Trinidadians who were fired up by the perception and perhaps reality of ethnic marginalisation. And crucially, the PNM was now led by Dr. Keith Rowley who was seen by PNM supporters as more pro-Black that his predecessor. This perception was helped by racist attacks on him, which included open suggestions that he was too Black to lead the country. In the end, the Prime Minister, despite her genuine attempts at ethnic fairness, fell victim to the potent politics of race. She was forced on the day after the election to condemn Facebook posts that described Dr. Rowley as a monkey and threatened violence against him and African- Trinidadians.
There are lessons in the Trinidad elections for Guyana. The final tally of the popular votes are almost identical—the latest unofficial numbers put the PNM at 50.76% and the combined opposition at 49.24%. The final Guyanese tally showed the APNU+AFC at 50.30% and the combined opposition at 49.70%. In particular, there are lessons for the newly elected APNU+AFC coalition, especially for the AFC and the PNC. But there are also lessons for the opposition PPP. The big question arising from the NAR and PP experiences in Trinbago is this: is ethnic backlash inevitable in the wake of Partnership governments dominated by one ethnic party/group? I shall elaborate on these in a subsequent column.
(Dr. David Hinds, a political activist and commentator, is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies at Arizona State University. More of his writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to email@example.com)