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UNC and COP logos
The UNC and COP have agreed to form a coalition if elected
Coalition politics frightens the life out of Trinidad and Tobago’s 54-year old ruling People’s National Movement (PNM).

This is true both as a “weapon formed against it” or if some leading calypsonian were to suggest to the PNM hierarchy (“Patos”) as a means of the party becoming a coalition force of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious groupings which make up this difficult-to-understand, even more difficult-to-control society.

What has been said above is no “mamaguy” (big shot, boasting) talk; the youths of today would say “no fooling”.

The proof of such a disposition is in the political history of T&T.

Even when faced with the possibility of seeking an alliance with the Tobago-element of the National Alliance for Reconstruction in 1995 to stay in power by accommodating with the NAR’s two seats to break the 17-17 deadlock in Trinidad, the PNM leadership sang its ancient mantra: “we’ll win alone, lose alone, and go into government or opposition alone.”

Memories of 1986

In 1986, having been in office for 30 straight years, the PNM was obliterated by the opposition in the coalition, National Alliance for Reconstruction, 33-3.

It was the first time that the party of historian and the country's first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams was beaten in a general election.

And this was notwithstanding the fact that the PNM was beaten in local government elections back in the late 1950s; by guess what, a coalition of ethnicities, social and business classes.

PNM logo
PNM: facing another coalition challenge

Piqued by the audacity of those in the coalition to successfully oppose him, Williams lashed out with perhaps his most famous speech: “Massa Day Done”.

In it, he castigated the Indian community for aligning itself with the merchant and planter classes of the old white Creole.

It was he claimed an attempt by the Indians to invite “Massa” (white ruling classes from colonial days) to return.

Against such a background of PNM trouble with coalitions, it is therefore quite understandable that as campaigning intensifies for the May 24 general elections and as the coalition of 2010 comes together, Political Leader of the PNM, Prime Minister Patrick Manning, without the historical background of his party’s founder, is using his claimed close relationship with God (he has said he will become a pastor when he leaves politics) to take him out of his very secular trouble.

The "devil's" bread

“What I see as emerging from those opposite to us is a disaster in the making. They talk unity but their policies don’t stand for that, their policies are divisive … If you put God out of your thoughts and let them come back, you’ll have to eat the bread the devil kneads.”

Winston Dookeran
Winston Dookeran's COP in opposition alliance with the UNC

This time around, the coalition of forces also includes the same Indo-Trinidad political constituency of previous years.

There are, however, now two elements of the constituency: the large and monolithic United National Congress (UNC) led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar; and the Congress of the People (COP), the creation of respected economist, Winston Dookeran.

But so too is the business class inside the coalition, even if less obvious than on previous occasions.

But significantly this time, a few of the leaders of the Black Power Revolution of 1970, Makandal Daaga (then Geddess Granger) are there to appeal to the black social underclass, the rock upon which Williams built the PNM house.

In the mix too, and not for the first time, is a large cross-section of the labour movement. In 1976, the radical unions joined with the Indian-base of leader, Basdeo Panday, to form the United Labour Front.

But while there is a “vibe” in the society for change stimulated by quite a large chunk of dissatisfaction with the ruling party, especially its leader, the volatile cocktail mix is making many wary.

How will Errol McLeod, the most militant trade union voice of the last 25 years, going to sit in a cabinet with conservative Indians, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, former governor of the Central Bank, Winston Dookeran and representatives of the business class?

Coalition concerns

That is a question that is beginning to haunt potential supporters of the coalition and will need to be answered by the coalition partners. The PNM is making sure everyone believes the forces to be incompatible.

But for one of the major architects of modern coalitions, the late Lloyd Best, such aggregations in T&T must be a “party of parties” without any pretence to sell them as one organic whole.

Patrick Manning (l) and Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar (r)
Patrick Manning is going head-to-head with Kamla Persad-Bissesar

Best argued that the mechanism has to be created to allow the horse-trading of the different interest groups to take place within the party.

He nonetheless was always a couple steps ahead of the rest of society in his proposals for economic and political reforms.

But notwithstanding what has been said to be the inherent weakness of coalition parties in Trinidad and Tobago, the reality is that the two coalition governments formed, both lasted their allotted five-year stints in office.

Moreover, on the three occasions that governments collapsed in office in T&T, they were all one-party governments.

Mr. Manning led two of them – 1995 and 2010; the other (2001) was that of Mr. Basdeo Panday’s United National Congress.

While there are many issues to be discussed, inclusive of the legitimacy and sustainability of the coalition, allegations of deep corruption in the government, the inability of the government to make a dent on widespread and violent criminal activity, the parties and their leaders are still sparring, looking for weaknesses in the defences of each other.

But what is never short on an election platform in Trinidad, not so much Tobago, Tobagonians take themselves very seriously, is picong (poking fun) and mauvais langue (bad talking).

The first the ability of the Trini (Trinidadian) to dispense with spicy wit, the second searing and caustic accusations usually spiced with Sparrow-like double entendre; I won’t dare to relate a few examples on a respectable BBC website page.

But in all seriousness, the coalition issue is going to occupy a prominent place on stage and will also result in impassioned invective.

A ringside seat is necessary.

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