The outcome of last Monday’s by-election in racially polarized Trinidad shows that “performance and service” to constituents can beat “tribalism”. It has a larger message for a similar plural society like Guyana where the Trinidad message suggests that “ethnics” (Indians in this case) can vote for someone of another ethnicity if they have been treated with respect and if service is delivered to them.
Jack Warner, an African, defeated the Indian UNC party (led by the popular Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar) in the safest Indian seat (93% Indian, the most apan jhaatist of all seats) creating political history as the only “independent” to win a seat outside of traditional ethnic voting. It was a shocking defeat for an ethnic party, an unbelievable phenomenon putting the party on the defensive. The outcome shows that Indian voters are willing to reward those who treat them well. The outcome suggests the ruling UNC coalition government, called Peoples Partnership (PP), could be in for some rough political waves unless it moves quickly to contain any fallout from Jack’s victory with local elections due in three months and general elections in two years.
Warner was the Chairman of the UNC up until the ending of April when he resigned his executive position, Ministry (National Security), and parliamentary seat. He resigned his seat to seek revalidation as an M.P. after allegations of corruption (relating to FIFA) were made against him feeling it was the right thing to do. He sought the party’s nomination to contest the seat but the party selection committee rejected him and he decided to form a party (ILP) overnight (just three weeks) and contested and won a landslide victory against the UNC by 69% to 29% with the PNM candidate getting 2%. The outcome was not a surprise for independent analysts as all published polls, including NACTA’s conducted by this writer, predicted a huge Warner victory. Two exit polls (right after voters cast ballots), including one conducted by this writer, showed a Warner landslide but party hawks dismissed the polls.
It was a nasty bitter fought campaign with race raising its ugly head. But the Indians stuck it out with Warner. Indians did not want to be nemakharam telling this writer they could not be ungrateful to a man who did so much for them. The entire cabinet and M.P.s of about 35 campaigned against Warner but he still defeated them by more than two to one. He likened the by-election campaign to the battle between David and Goliath. He told a cheering crowd that mobbed him, “We stood up against the might of a government and won”. The key word is “we” as he is focusing on the people rather himself, a weakness of most PP Ministers and M.P.s who are increasingly becoming arrogant and alienating themselves from supporters. The power has gotten to their head that they don’t relate to the people much, talking down to them and not answering phone calls or attending wakes, funerals, barahee, Koran shariefs, Jhandis, etc.
The outcome of the by-election now puts Warner in direct opposition to the UNC and PP government with the government expressing concerns about possible defections that could topple it. This writer feels the government will last its full term through May 2015 and strongly feels Warner is willing to work with the partnership local but it cannot be business as usual. The PP will have to reach out to Warner and build an alliance failing which the PP will inevitably lose the local and general elections.
The government is not threatened because it enjoys a 27-12 advantage after starting out with a 29-12 advantage with two seats not under any whip. The PP’s seats were reduced last year when one M.P. Herbert Volney removed himself from the PP whip and described himself as Independent and resigned from the UNC last Tuesday. Volney has vowed to join Warner who is also friendly with six other M.P.s who could join him soon leaving the government with a bare majority of 21-20.
As Warner told supporters and the nation after his victory, if there was one lesson to be learnt, “it was that the Government must listen to the people and respond to their concerns” and to their message. The voters have sent a clear message that they want Warner. Democracy is at work and as the PM had said since 2010, the voice of the people is the voice of God. The PM must listen to God. Warner’s ILP applied for membership in the PP coalition but the leadership said flatly “no”. This has to change quickly as Warner cannot be ignored. He is the new rock star of Trinidad. He is a powerful force whose party has attracted over 80,000 members in three weeks and is likely to hit 150K in another month.
It is imperative therefore that the UNC/PP reconcile with Warner or risk losing its majority. Up until last Sunday, the Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her closest advisors and Ministers publicly rejected Warner as a member of her coalition saying he must first clear his name of allegations. Warner responded that he has not been charged in any court anywhere in the world. He also pointed out that allegations have been made against several Ministers and they have not cleared their names. The principle of innocence until proven guilty applies.
Warner initially said he is willing to return to the coalition as a partner but now he is saying he will do so only on his own conditions. Warner’s friends in the cabinet are willing to re-embrace him with several of them saying there is room for Warner in the coalition. But Warner is now saying his supporters no longer want to be tied to the PP. Compromise and reconciliation is the only way forward for both the PP and ILP. It is in the interest of Kamla and Jack to re-engage themselves. People want the return of the “Kam-Jack” alliance that they say was responsible for propelling the partnership into government in May 2010. They feel Kam-Jack will lead to improved government performance helping to re-engineer the re-election of the PP that has seen its favorability numbers fall, from all polls, since its election three years ago and particularly so since the fall out between Jack and the UNC since April. Kamla needs to act immediately to shore up her government.
The Trinidad message with regards to Guyana is instead of attacking another ethnic group, an ethnic party should provide service and protection to win them voter. Violence is not an option to win over voter support. Also, ignoring a political base and alienating yourselves from supporters can lead to declining support. The parties in Guyana need to pay heed to the Trinidad message and reorient their focus to better service the nation.