After all the campaigning, the outcome of the Trinidad and Tobago elections of 2007 saw Prime Minister Patrick Manning leading his People’s National Movement (PNM) troops to a resounding victory over the United National Congress, led by former Prime Minister Mr. Basdeo Panday and the Congress of the People, led by Mr. Winston Dookeran. The final result in the expanded House of Representatives was PNM 26 seats, UNC 15 seats and COP no seats. This was the first election for COP, a breakaway group from the UNC. What can we learn about the social compact of this election? First and foremost we again saw the difficulty of a third party making an impact on the Westminster system of government, as was the case in 1981 with the Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR), the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) in 1991 and now with COP in 2007. Conventional wisdom says that since the political kingdom is organized around race and ethnicity, third parties are doomed to failure. This election confirms some dimensions of the conventional wisdom but also highlights some new developments.
The PNM continues to be able to put together a solid bloc of Afro Trinidadians across class lines. Historically the black middle class has always been solidly behind the PNM, only abandoning the PNM in 1986 when they migrated to the NAR, handing the PNM the worst defeat in its history. The more interesting development however is what has been happening among the supporters of the UNC. The PNM, between 1956 and 1986 had been successful in also attracting some middle class Indo Trinidadians from among the ranks of the Muslim community and the Presbyterian community. These groups went over to the NAR in 1986, and after the defeat of the NAR in 1991 they migrated to the UNC and joined their middle class Hindu counterparts, propelling the party into government in 1995. The defeat of the UNC in 2001 and subsequent leadership crisis between Mr Panday and Mr Dookeran resulted in the migration of much of the Indo Trinidadian middle class, those who Mr Panday referred to as “knife and fork Indians,” into the newly formed COP.
This election demonstrates that there is at least one section of the electorate that does not want to comply with the traditional practice of ethnic voting. It has also exposed some significant weaknesses in the ability of the UNC to form a government in the future. The brahminic leadership tendencies of the UNC and the clear attempts now to set up a dynastic succession pattern along the lines of the Congress Party in India, are unlikely to re-attract “the knife and fork Indians” or any meaningful component of the Afro Trinidadian electorate. Given these tendencies and the current constitutional arrangements in Trinidad and Tobago, the UNC as presently constituted will never be able to move out of opposition into government.
COP faces the uphill task of remaining a viable political instrument since it does not have any levers in government to work with. One possibility is to focus on the upcoming Local Government elections in order to remain politically relevant. Some success in this arena would surely throw a lifeline to this political organization as well as to the 140,000 plus persons who voted for the party, but have no representation to show for it.
In more ways than one, the PNM is the real victor in this election. It is always difficult to dislodge an incumbent government, especially during a time of economic boom. The PNM has been able to keep middle class Afro Trinidadians firmly in its camp, something that the UNC was unable to do among Indo Trinidadians. Given the present political rules of the game, the PNM need only make small adjustments to allow it to broaden its base and retain power for a long time. First the PNM may choose to deepen the process of integrating some Indo Trinidadians into the party. As noted, some of the Indo Trinidadian middle class has been loyal to the PNM in the past. Mr Manning has previously reached out to some elements of the Indo Trinidadian population, though without much success. It may be to the PNM’s advantage to intensify that process now to woo some of the “knife and fork Indians”.
Successfully building such a bridge would ensure that the PNM would be the majority party for the foreseeable future. To the credit of the population, politically motivated violence remains at a minimum. Elections are now over. Christmas and Carnival soon follow, and as Rudder said “how we vote is not how we party”. Parang and soca already fill the air and the party done start, so, until the next elections, jump and wave yuh balisser.