Trinidad's turn

Print edition : November 22, 2002

The results of the elections held on October 7 end the ruling stand-off in Trinidad and Tobago, but there is no immediate end in sight to political acrimony and racial animosity.

Prime Minister Patrick Manning takes the oath of office during the swearing in ceremony at President House on October 9.-

WHEN Basdeo Panday was elected Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in 1995 it was hailed as the dawn of a new style of politics in the Caribbean island nation. Panday, a descendant of Indian indentured labourers, was the first Prime Minister of Indian origin in the multiracial two-island State. It was the political assertion of the Indo-Trinidadian community that broke decades of rule by the Afro-Trinidadians. But, six years later, the country went through ten months of political turmoil with a paralysed Parliament. It was brought to an end only because of the need for a new Budget.

Once known as the Land of the Hummingbird, the island nation is inhabited mostly by people of African and Indian descent and is the most cosmopolitan of West Indian societies. Parties and gaiety are serious business in Trinidad. It has an integrated multi-racial society, but election time brings out the ethnic differences because race plays an important part in Trinidad's politics.

The two main political parties in Trinidad were originally formed along racial lines in the pre-Independence period and continue to appeal mainly to their own ethnic communities. The people of Indian origin support the United National Congress while the Afro-Trinidadians vote for the People's National Movement (PNM), which has dominated political life for a major part of the four decades since Independence in 1962.

Leader of the opposition Basdeo Panday takes the Oath of Allegiance in Parliament on October 17.-PICTURES: SHIRLEY BAHADUR/AP

Trinidad has a population of 1.3 million, of which 43 per cent are of African descent and 41 per cent are of Indian origin. The rest are descendants of Chinese, Lebanese, Amerindians (the original inhabitants of the islands) and Europeans.

The past year has seen charges of corruption and a steady heating up of the political discourse. The run-up to the elections held on October 7 was acrimonious, with fresh disputes cropping up with the Elections and Boundaries Commission as both sides alleged padding of the electoral rolls.

After completing a five-year term, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday was elected for a second time in 2000 with a narrow majority. But the PNM disputed the results and challenged the election of two UNC candidates.

Former Prime Minister Patrick Manning, whom Panday had replaced, called for street demonstrations against what he termed an illegal government. Some weeks later, Panday warned Parliament that certain groups were amassing arms in order to make a violent attempt to seize power. The acrimony increased, vitiating the political and social environment. The Panday government fell within a year when three Ministers quit over internal party politics and charges of corruption. Attorney-General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj stated that he had lost confidence in the government's ability and commitment to deal effectively with corruption.

Elections were called in December 2001. The group of three from the UNC formed a new party, Team Unity, but failed to win any seats. The election resulted in an 18-18 tie in the 36-member House of Representatives. President A.N.R. Robinson chose not to ask the incumbent Prime Minister to continue but appointed Patrick Manning as Prime Minister. For the ethnic Indian community this decision revived memories of discrimination during the long PNM rule. The political deadlock continued for ten months. With the sharp polarisation the House of Representatives could not function for it could not elect a Speaker. Parliament met in August to the same result. Silence prevailed as the Clerk of the House called for a Speaker to be elected. Finally Prime Minister Manning rose to announce that he would ask for the dissolution of the House and fresh elections. The fiscal year in Trinidad ends on September 30 and a new Budget had to be approved by Parliament before the end of October.

In the early decades after independence from Britain, the PNM under Eric Williams dominated the political scene. According to some Indo-Trinidadians, Dr. Williams' government had a policy of marginalising the Indian community. Though he had a couple of East Indians in his Cabinet, the main part of the community was kept out of political power. The largest employer, the bureaucracy, was not open to young Indians. Funds allocation to projects geared for the ethnic Indian community, including schools for Indians, was meagre and Indian religious and social groups had to step in to set up educational institutions.

Towards the fag end of the PNM's three-decades-long rule, East Indians became active in politics. But it was the charismatic trade union leader Basdeo Panday who infused a new sense of activism, aligned himself with smaller groups and pushed ethnic Indians into power in 1995. During the Williams era it was considered unthinkable that there could be a Prime Minister of Indian origin in Trinidad. The East Indians made an entry into the government in 1986 when the PNM lost to a coalition of the UNC and the National Alliance for Reconstruction led by A.N.R. Robinson. Through the government's five-year term, Prime Minister Robinson and Finance Minister Panday carried out tough, International Monetary Fund-backed economic reforms to stem the economic decline, but the alliance lost to the PNM in the 1991 elections. A PNM government under Manning remained in power till the next elections in 1995 when Panday became Prime Minister and Robinson joined the government as Minister Extraordinaire till he was elected President in 1997.

Afro-Trinidadians are descendants of African slaves while Indo-Trinidadians are the descendants of Indian indentured labourers who worked on the plantations after slavery was abolished. Indian workers were brought to Trinidad under labour contracts for periods ranging from three to five years after 1845. About 1,34,183 indentured labourers reached Trinidad between 1845 and 1917. Unlike other countries where Indian indentured workers had been taken, in Trinidad the administration offered land to the workers in lieu of free passage home. Many of them stayed back, working their small patches of land, later buying more land and finally becoming a part of a thriving peasant community, with their own villages and reviving their customs and traditions. By 1917, when the indenture system ended officially, the Indian immigrants had come to own about one-fifth of the entire cultivated land in Trinidad and Tobago.

The younger generation began to move out of the family farms to take up ancillary work vending milk, plying carriages and carts in the rural areas and semi-skilled work in the towns. Indians opened schools and with education the East Indian community began to put behind it the shadows of the indentured past. But despite the common experience of working under harsh colonial masters, the two communities did not intermingle. Deeply ingrained racial differences kept the two ethnic groups apart, and they despised each other's habits and practices. The East Indians lived in rural villages, while the Afro-Trinidadians lived in the towns. But Indian enterprise made the younger generation look for jobs and work in the urban areas until they came to be successful businessmen.

Indo-Trinidadians are an integral part of the island society and Arrival Day, commemorating the day the sailing ship Fatel Rozak sailed into Port of Spain harbour in May 1845, is a national holiday. Social melding has taken place over the years and Trinidadian society is now a mix of African and Indian influences. The 1995 election results gave to Indo-Trinidadians what they saw as their rightful place in the country's politics.

The October 7 election gave the PNM 20 seats against the UNC's 16, and Manning became an elected Prime Minister as compared to the "appointed" Prime Minister he was for 10 months. It was a highly charged political battle between the two parties and their leaders, and this became increasingly acrimonious in the last two years. Fortunately, the elections took place without the kind of intimidation and violence that had been predicted by some observers during the election campaign.

Basdeo Panday has said he would step down as UNC leader and not accept the position of Leader of Opposition, and would remain an MP for three years. His combative style of administration and recent allegations of corruption, including the non-disclosure of a personal account in a London bank, have marred the picture of a politician and community leader who has been a staunch advocate of national unity, opposing any form of racial animosity. However, the UNC will find it difficult to choose a satisfactory replacement for the flamboyant 70-year-old leader. His retirement from politics or even from the leadership of the UNC will leave the party rudderless at a critical time.

The UNC has to rebuild its leadership and the PNM government has to make efforts towards reconciliation and restoration of racial harmony. A Trinidadian observer said: "Elections are a nine-day wonder, and all kind of ghosts are exorcised during elections." Cricket, calypso and carnivals are the three national interests in Trinidad, and perhaps it is time to go back to them instead of potentially divisive politics.

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