Saturday, November 09, 2002

I've been playing deadline catch-up for the last fortnight or so, & last weekend was given over to the CAPNET BookFest, held in Port of Spain this year. So I never properly thrashed out the Caroni restructuring issue, which my friend Damien & I had started arguing about via email & IM; & I never got around to posting on the bracing three-part column Raymond Ramcharitar wrote for the Express weekend before last, dealing with the PNM's election victory a month ago (1, 2, 3), or Maxie Cuffie's blistering two-part response (1, 2; ignore the fact that the second instalment erroneously appears under Reginald Dumas's byline), or the several members of the public who've weighed in via the Express letters page.

The real question is how to interpret the results of these last general elections. In practical terms, the PNM won by a few thousand votes in the three marginal constituencies of San Fernando West, Tunapuna and Mayaro. But a broader view reveals that, nationwide, the PNM got 50,000 more votes than they did last year; the UNC increased their total by just 5,000. Kirk Meighoo, analysing these figures in the November Trinidad & Tobago Review (sorry, not online), estimates that of the PNM's 50,000 new voters as many as 17,000 voted for the UNC last time around. This indicates the emergence of a swing vote in T&T, which Lloyd Best, in several columns, has called an exciting development; it "might well be the most subversive development of our times", he writes in today's Express; "a small but vital section of the electorate has refused mere tribal alignment and is exercising real discrimination and choice".

Ramcharitar doesn't agree; it's "a snapping back to old patterns", in his view, & Kevin Baldeosingh feels the same way: "the 70 per cent turnout may actually reflect a growing tribalism on the part of the two ethnic groups." But neither Ramcharitar nor Baldeosingh were writing with the benefit of Meighoo's statistical analysis; barring a mathematical error I can't discern, as many as 17,000 voters did in fact switch from the UNC to the PNM between 2001 & 2002.

What we must wait to see is whether this "swing" was a one-time response to the ubiquitous allegations of UNC corruption, to be abandoned next elections for familiar tribal habits, or whether some kind of political development is actually taking place. Lloyd Best is taking the optimistic view — he says he's never been so excited as he is now! — but personally, pessimistically, I need more evidence to be convinced.


What Ramcharitar has been accused of, by Cuffie & by some of the letter-writers, is a strong (& strongly-worded) prejudice against the black urban population who form the core of the PNM vote. Passages like this are troubling:

"This, then, is a tentative profile of the young person who voted for the PNM: poorly educated, intensely racialised, xenophobic, unaware of the past and the present outside their orbits (i.e. the outside world), moral in a very narrow way without being ethical, and indifferent to the future.

"Some supplementary qualities are unambitiousness, a mistrust of healthy skepticism or curiosity, belief in the inevitability of petty authority, and a certainty that Carnival is a desirable substitute for literature, theatre, and art."

This is troubling because it exaggerates, oversimplifies, overgeneralises; but also, let's admit, because it contains enough truth to require serious consideration. And let's waste no time in acknowledging that these qualities are in some degree characteristic not just of black Trinidadians but of Trinidadians of every ethnic or tribal group. Ramcharitar isn't racist — I can say so because I know him personally, but apart from that much of his previous writing establishes this fact — but he runs the risk of appearing so in this column, by not subjecting UNC voters to the same harsh scrutiny as PNM voters.

"This is not a pro-UNC column, it’s an anti-PNM one," he writes, "because any sane person who cares for the welfare of the nation, and the weaker members of the society, has a responsibility to be anti-PNM". But by ignoring the failings of the UNC & its supporters he unbalances his argument. We all need to face up to this: our two main parties as they have been constituted for the 40 years of our nationhood are blocks to our political development. We need to get rid of Manning & Panday. We need new movements & new leaders (to echo Lloyd Best's mantra), & not Maharaj nor Mottley nor Alvarez will do. We need to be anti-UNC as well as anti-PNM.

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