Sunday, December 16, 2012

Guest column - the changing political culture - by Dr Hamid Ghany

With the reforms approved by the PNM to their constitution, it is now apparent that the major political parties in the country are all now in a position to have their members play a more decisive role in the election of their executive membership.

The overall effect of this will be to provide legitimacy to political organisations whose elected officials can now claim a level of political legitimacy that did not previously exist. Before these reforms, party executives had to derive their legitimacy from the extent to which the political leader had “blessed” the election or selection by making his preferences known. Legitimacy came more from the favour of the political leader than from the will of the delegates.

Before the 2010 and 2012 UNC internal elections, these elections had not previously been held on time in accordance with the party’s constitution. The struggles of Jack Warner and Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj in 2009 effectively forced Basdeo Panday to fix a date for the election in January 2010. Although Warner and Maharaj separated after that, the reality is that the new political leader, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, has effectively upheld the provisions of the UNC constitution to have the elections for the executive on time.

The Congress of the People (COP) was born as a breakaway faction of the UNC when Winston Dookeran formed it while simultaneously resigning as political leader of the UNC in 2006. There were no elections until the first executive elections in November 2010. This was followed by the July 2011 election of a political leader which was not contested by Dookeran. In deciding not to seek election as political leader in 2011 he forced his party into a succession plan five years after its formation.

The PNM is the latest political party to come to this policy shift. As the oldest party in the country, it took them a long time and three electoral defeats where the party was removed from power (1986, 1995 and 2010) before they took this bold step. The reality is that every political leader and member of the executive of the PNM from now on has to rely on the support of the PNM electorate to secure their positions. The only exception is Tobago where the delegate system has been retained for the political leader of the party in Tobago.

What the country now has is a situation whereby the major political parties have the phenomenon of electoral mobilisation within their ranks outside of the period of general elections. This will bring with it levels of activism and legitimacy that will validate political parties among their members as opposed to becoming the fiefdoms of their leaders.

The 2009 struggle of Warner and Maharaj against Panday for the holding of the UNC elections ushered in a period of mobilisation and unity led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar that raised the fortunes of the UNC. The 2011 decision of Dookeran not to contest the leadership elections in the COP ushered in a period of divisiveness for the party in the post-Dookeran era that it is still trying to reconcile in relation to those who want it to leave the People’s Partnership Government and those who want it to stay.

The 2012 decision of the PNM to undertake fundamental party constitution reform has now ushered in a period whereby any potential challenger(s) to Dr Rowley will have two years to prepare themselves for this new era in the development of the party.

The reality is that all of the major parties will have their stars aligned in 2014 as the executives of the UNC, COP and PNM will all have elections in the same year. The PNM and the COP will have all of their positions up for election from political leader downwards, while the UNC will have all positions except the political leader up for election in 2014. The UNC political leader election will be in 2013.

What this means is that our political culture will undergo a fundamental alteration with three political parties conducting major internal electoral exercises one year before the general election that is due in 2015. In the case of the PNM there is the likelihood that their electoral contest may be extended if there are no clear winners with more than 50 per cent of the votes cast as they have chosen to implement a second ballot system for a runoff election between the top two contestants from the first ballot if no one has an outright majority the first time.

All of this mobilisation going on in 2014 will provide the atmosphere of mini-general elections before the real one on 2015. For all of the parties this will be their dry run for that event. Trinidad and Tobago will have advanced itself further along the continuum of being a functioning democracy as leadership will be tested by popular will as opposed to personal acclamation. The major challenge for all of these parties will be their ability to remain unified after the bruising battle among their respective electorates. Too much divisiveness could hamper any party’s chances in 2015.

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai