We are not sure what reading on the Richter scale the seismic event that occurred last Monday in Trinidad registered, but since it was felt all the way in Guyana, it has to be quite high.
The perennial bane of politics in Trinidad, as in Guyana, has been its racialised pattern of voting by the two largest blocs of voters – Africans and Indians. In Trinidad, in the post-independence era, the Guyanese PNC and PPP were matched in their base of support by the People’s National Movement (PNM) and the DLP/ULF/ and now United National Congress (UNC).
While these parties professed to be “multiracial”, it was accepted that candidates from the “other constituency” were basically “tokens” and would be voted in because of their party affiliation rather than any real cross-racial appeal. But Monday’s by-election in Chaguanas West might have just turned that half a century of political wisdom on its head.
Chaguanas West is in the heartland of the UNC’s traditional Indian base, and in the first-past-the-post constituency system that Trinidad retained, was always considered a UNC “safe seat”. In 2007, as the financial backer and new Chairman of the UNC of Basdeo Panday, Jack Warner, an African, ran for that constituency and won comfortably. But while Warner might have been new to electoral politics he had been quite practiced in people’s politics, rising from Secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) in 1973 to CONCACAF’s President in 1990 and FIFA Vice President in 1997.
Dodged by accusations of fast dealings throughout his career as a football executive, Warner acquired extensive real estate and business holdings in Trinidad and abroad. He displayed a great talent for connecting with his new constituents in Chaguanas West. He spent a tremendous amount of time on the ground and attended numerous Hindu and Muslim events of ordinary people.
In the 2010 snap general elections, he had shifted his support from the old UNC leader to the resurgent Kamla Persad Bissessar, and won Chaguanas West again. Everyone assumed that it was because of Kamla, who became PM in the election coalition with the third-party COP. Warner received the largest majority of any candidate nationally and became Minister of Works in the Cabinet. But by this time, pointed accusations of financial impropriety had begun to surface from his football life.
By 2011, a video of his FIFA disciplinary hearings was leaked and precipitated wide opposition outrage. PM Kamla stood by Warner, but by April 2013 she decided the political fallout was too great and Warner resigned as the new Minister of Public Security, as Chairman of the UNC and from his Chaguanas West seat.
The last act triggered a by-election and after the UNC decided to field another candidate, Warner formed a new political party – the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) to contest the seat. Kamla placed her personal reputation on the line by becoming totally involved in the campaign. Warner’s 69% victory over her candidate is thus being seen as an indictment of her leadership.
But the most pertinent outcome from Warner’s victory is that the “truism” that a candidate from one “race group” could not win in a constituency dominated by another race group has been challenged. What Warner has demonstrated is if a candidate has a record of delivering on promises to his constituents and to identify with their problems, the racial bogeyman might be killed.
In Guyana, we hope the politicians from the two “camps” have taken note of the seismic event and we hope that the presumptions of entitlement to ethnic constituency pies will be challenged. What Warner has also shown is that Trinidadian voters do not seem to be that concerned by the accusations of financial impropriety against Warner.
Guyanese might be interested as to whether V.S. Naipaul’s characterisation of Trinidad as a “picaroon society with a taste for corruption” might also be true for their country. But then again, the funds in question did not come from Trinidad’s treasury.