Underpinnings: 2020 National Election in Trinidad and Tobago

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By Karen Dipnarine-Saroop

Picture Courtesy- Getty Images

As the election date of August 10, 2020, closes in on the island nation, the customary façade of intercommunal camaraderie in politics is once again giving way to a deeper ethnically-rooted sectionalism.

Keywords: Indian Diaspora | British Colonialism | Ethnic Political Parties | Historical Injustices | Societal Problems | Upcoming Elections 

Most of my life was spent on the tiny island of Trinidad and Tobago. It is interesting to note that the rich history of the Indian presence in this national landscape goes as long back as May, 1845 when 225 indentured laborers arrived from India on a ship called the “Fatel Razack.” Today, 42% of the population constitute people of full or partial Indian descent.

This island nation, my first home, has always been my safe place, my refuge, my place of peace and healing. Growing up as a child, my maternal grandparents had a humble home that was made of unpainted concrete and wood. During the dry season, the wooden doors and windows were left open all day long to allow the free flow of the cool tropical breeze through the house. In the wet season, they were left open until the winds began to usher the rains inside. At night, they were all closed before we retired to bed. All the doors and windows had simple metal slide bolts but no locks. Maybe it was the innocence of being a child, but we felt no fear.

As I got older, I watched as open windows and doors gradually became shuttered and shielded by thick, welded, latticed wrought iron bars secured even further with heavy-duty, high security, industrial padlocks. These were popularly termed “burglar proof.” The breeze was no longer invited inside. Its place was outside while we remained sequestered and safe inside. As crimes began to escalate, it felt like we were becoming prisoners in our own homes. Like we were captives in enclosed, dark, airless dungeons while the criminals roamed free.

The turn of the century saw an unprecedented increase in murders and kidnappings on the island. The numbers grew from 118 murders in 2000 to 538 in 2019. In 2007, there were a whopping 155 kidnappings. Since 2005, the number of murders has exceeded the number of days in any given year. Over the years, the high incidence of crime has been attributed to drugs and gangs operating in economically depressed communities on the island, which remain greatly uncontrolled. The latest statistic I found placed a staggering 20% of the population below the poverty line. This poverty figure does not include the recent economic impact of SARS-CoV-2 on the population.

Additionally, while citizens can access free health care at public health care facilities, the health services continue to be plagued by inefficiencies for decades. There certainly are dedicated, knowledgeable and kind medical professionals, but the dysfunctional system continues to fail the population. Repeated calls have been made for better throughput and modern management systems in the healthcare system.

The UNDP 2019 Human Development Report for Trinidad and Tobago made a pertinent note, “Inequalities in human development hurt societies and weaken social cohesion and people’s trust in government, institutions and each other. They hurt economies, wastefully preventing people from reaching their full potential at work and in life. They make it harder for political decisions to reflect the aspirations of the whole society and to protect our planet, as the few pulling ahead flex their power to shape decisions primarily in their interests.”

The multitude of societal problems faced by the citizens makes the upcoming national election a significantly consequential one. The island is wracked by concerns about food and water security, illegal immigration, lack of diversified economic opportunity, lack of government accountability and transparency, corruption, unemployment, climate change, among others. And what is clear is that the security and well-being of the nation is in peril.

As I write this article, two of the three countries that have been home to me are in the deep throes of political campaigns for imminent national elections – Trinidad and Tobago and the United States of America. The dominant question on every citizen’s mind is a question that mirrors the state of leadership the world over with just a few exceptions: “Who is the lesser of the two evils?”

While Trinidad and Tobago has had what one may term “political peace,” below the surface has always simmered a certain degree of ethnic antipathy. 

Post-World War II, Britain had found itself in a place where it had survived the war, but its wealth, prestige and authority had been severely reduced and thus began a process of decolonization across the British Empire. Trinidad and Tobago benefited from this staggering blow to Britain.

Following the Butler Riots of 1937, universal adult suffrage was granted to Trinidad and Tobago in 1945 permitting all citizens who were 21 years and older to vote. In 1956, when the first national election was held, there were two major political parties existing on the island, largely divided along racial lines – the People’s National Movement (PNM) largely supported by the people of African descent and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) supported by those of Indian descent. In 1956, six years before the country gained its independence from Britain, the PNM just barely secured a political win by gaining 13 out of the 24 seats and went on to rule the island for 30 years. Many would argue convincingly that, during this period of power, the PNM allocated most resources for the benefit of the African community while practicing ethnically oppressive and discriminatory methods toward the Indian population.

The PDP later went on to take the avatar of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), which found a largely diminished support base of Indo-Trinidadians and was eventually displaced by its successor, the United Labor Front (ULF) under Basdeo Panday in 1976. In 1986, the ULF became a part of an electoral pact known as the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR). This was intended to be a multi-racial party. The new party won the elections in 1986 and marked an end to the 30-year reign by the PNM. The alliance was a breath of fresh air and entered government with fervent public support and goodwill, but the dramatic cuts in employment and public servant salaries brought on by the Structural Adjustment Program of the International Monetary Fund resulted in a sharp rise in national disapproval and dissatisfaction. The radical Islamic Jamaat al Muslimeen capitalized on this through an attempted coup d’état in 1990. After a series of infighting, splits, defections and expulsions, Panday formed the United National Congress (UNC) in 1989, which stood as the largely Indian Hindu Party on the island, but today it has evolved into one that now commands greater national support especially from the rural population. In 1995, Basdeo Panday became the first Indo-Trinidadian to hold the position of Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. In 2010, Indo-Trinidadian Kamla Persad Bissessar of UNC became the first female Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago until 2015 when PNM returned to power.

Now as the election date of August 10, 2020 closes in on the island, the customary façade of intercommunal camaraderie in politics is once again giving way to a deeper ethnically-rooted sectionalism – largely a rallying of the tribes. But it is generally accepted that no ethnically monolithic party will ever win a general election on its own in Trinidad and Tobago. Additionally, there is no dearth of documented failures by both political parties while in national office. There is a lack of leadership and organization on both fronts, and I do think that we are our own enemies caught in a tangled web of political ambition, individuality and ego with the citizens being caught ceaselessly in the center every single time as the five-year juicy meal for a 41-legged spider (41-legged spider refers to the 41 members of parliament in the Government of Trinidad and Tobago). Rather than foster a restructuring of the political campaigning strategy, its devices and fundamental foundations, looking in from outside, there appears to be a furtherance of the time-worn reaffirmation of citizen commitment to already existing arrangements.

As of now, the predictions seem to be in favour of another victory for the PNM over the UNC. Though, an alliance between the UNC and the Black/African Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP), which is contesting the two seats in Tobago, is likely to present a worthwhile advantage to the UNC and alter the existing tide.

In any case, with four weeks left, one can hope for reform, reimagination and rebirth of the way we do politics in Trinidad and Tobago keeping the future, safety and well-being of the nation at the forefront. New orders are emerging in countries around the globe and it would serve the nation well to deviate from the antiquated status quo within which it has been living for too long.

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Karen Dipnarine-Saroop

Karen Dipnarine-Saroop holds an undergraduate degree from Osmania University in India and a master’s degree from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. She received her Accreditation in Public Relations from the Public Relations Society of America. Karen is a member of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and has served as an Associate Editor in Pragna Bharati in India, as Vice President of Health & Wellness in the International Center for Cultural Studies in the USA, as well as the head of communications in the Office of the Prime Minister (Social Services Division) in the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. She is the co-founder of The Green Brain Initiative.

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