Trinidad and Tobago in a difficult place

Ever since Jack Warner’s victory in the Chaguanas West by-election in Trinidad on July 29, there has been a lot of excited comment in the twin-island republic about a “paradigm shift” in the politics of the country. Unsurprisingly, some interest has been aroused in Guyana, where we have rather similar ethnic voting patterns. A bit of the buzz has also spread to other parts of the Caribbean, with the Jamaica Observer opining in its editorial on Tuesday, “The most intriguing possibility posed by the election of Mr Jack Warner is the emergence of post-racial politics in Trinidad.”

Notwithstanding the fact that Mr Warner would appear to have transcended race and party paramountcy to reclaim the seat he vacated in April, this newspaper warned in last Friday’s leader that Mr Warner’s re-election could be “a double-edged sword for the people of Trinidad and Tobago.” In other words, in spite of the validation by the voters of Chaguanas West of his personal popularity and his reputation as a caring politician, as well as the momentum he and his new Independent Liberal Party seem to be carrying into the October local government elections, it may be a tad premature to get carried away by his achievement whilst there remain serious allegations of financial mismanagement during his colourful career as a football administrator and other controversies surrounding his ministerial actions under the People’s Partnership (PP) government.

The former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Basdeo Panday, once famously declared, “Politics has a morality of its own,” and Mr Warner’s win would appear to be a perfect illustration of this cynical maxim. But, putting aside the haste with which some have suspended disbelief in hailing his triumph as game-changing, there are questions being raised about the deeper socio-political implications of Mr Warner’s new-found legitimacy.

According to political scientist Prof Selwyn Ryan, the Chaguanas West vote for Mr Warner was a rebuff for the failed promises of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and the United National Congress (UNC) and a rejection of the “[c]orruption, cronyism and arrogance” that “had become endemic.” The supreme irony, of course, as Dr Ryan is well aware, is that Mr Warner is not himself universally regarded as squeaky clean and was himself part of the same UNC and PP government for the past three years. But he may be the preferred one when it comes to dispensing patronage.

Independent Senator Dr Rolph Balgobin, in analysing the aftermath of Chaguanas West, suggests that “voters don’t care too much about corruption any more, but that they care very much about representation and service” and alludes to a Robin Hood syndrome: “If voters are saying it’s okay to steal, just give us some too, then that would be a modern incarnation of the Robin Hood logic which takes us down a moral slippery slope.” Thus, with respect to good governance, “the discourse of the intelligentsia and that of the common citizen are very far apart,” for “the people of Chaguanas West chose somebody who promised them not governance but service.”

This is indeed a slippery slope but the senator prefers to regard the moment as an opportunity for change, “a point of inflection,” whereby “Mr Warner and Mrs Persad-Bissessar now possess a golden opportunity to step away from the past, from all the allegations of corruption and scandal” and do the right thing for the country. Dr Balgobin clearly sees the glass as half full; a more cynical interpretation might be that if all or most of the allegations concerning Mr Warner are true, then he really does not need to fill his pockets and can therefore concentrate his formidable organisational skills on serving the people.

Perhaps, though, it is Trinidad Express columnist Sunity Maharaj who actually gets to the nub of the problem, arguing that Mr Warner’s “real constituency may well be those who are fed up with the existing political order and desire change at any price.” The downside of this, according to Ms Maharaj, is that “the old order of maximum leadership and central control is on full display” and that “[g]iven the momentum developing around [Mr Warner], who is to doubt that what we really want, despite our protestations and our claims to the contrary, is a strongman who will do everything for us and allow us the continued luxury of taking no responsibility for this place?”

It is a sobering thought, as Trinidad and Tobago finds itself in a difficult place, hovering between the Scylla and Charybdis of immorality in public life and political amorality.

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