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The politics of partnership.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The accession of the People’s Partnership to power last May opened a new chapter in the politics of this country. For the first time, a political movement that was not based on being a single party, but yet campaigned as one, had come to power in our post-independence political history. This was an affront to the hegemonic single-party model that had dominated our politics since 1956. In placing this concept on the political agenda, one wonders whether all those involved in the People’s Partnership even understood the nature of the fundamental change that they had presented to the national electorate.

For the first time, a collection of parties were campaigning to share power in the hope that they could cumulatively amass enough seats to capture a majority. This is to be contrasted with the PNM model of a hegemonic party that has no intention of sharing power and maintained its traditional campaign mode of seeking to capture power for itself only. This is the zero-sum game as opposed to the People’s Partnership model which is based on fractions hopefully adding up to a majority. As we probe deeper into the two approaches, the PNM model was the basis for the approach by the NAR in 1986 where that party attempted to copy the PNM in trying to fit all the opposition forces like one hand into a glove, in the hope that it would fit.

It fit for a while and then the glove was ripped apart by the internal stresses of discomfort. The traditional coalition model was used in 1995 by two hostile entities, the UNC and the NAR, and that did not survive beyond 2000 when they both became enemies again. So the concept of the People’s Partnership was conceived in haste as an alternative to these previous attempts. Whether the architects knew it or not, they changed the political philosophy that would guide the movement from being a single party seeking political hegemony to a collection of parties seeking to share power among themselves.

It is the philosophy of sharing power that was the game changer in this movement as the minority parties (the Congress of the People and the Tobago Organisation of the People) joined the United National Congress in putting up candidates on a pre-arranged slate in which two other political entities—the National Joint Action Committee and the Movement for Social Justice—agreed to use the political symbols of the COP and the UNC respectively in the general election. There were five possible outcomes for the formation of a Government available to the People’s Partnership, namely:

(I) single-party minimal-winning majority Cabinet; 

(II) multi-party minimal-winning majority Cabinet;

(III) single-party minimal-winning minority Cabinet;

(IV) multi-party minimal winning-minority Cabinet; or,

(V) oversized multi-party winning Cabinet. As it turned out, the People’s Partnership were able to use the oversized multi-party winning Cabinet because a single party won a majority in its own right (the UNC), but invited its partners to join them in supersizing the Government.

The PNM only had two options available to it given their philosophy of standing alone, namely the single party minimal-winning majority and the single party minimal-winning minority Cabinet. What the People’s Partnership has done is to create more political opportunities and space for other political movements that would never see the light of day in the corridors of power if they continued to adopt the hegemonic single-party approach to politics. By embracing political power-sharing, they have changed the rules of the game.

The traditionalist mode of exercising power is now being challenged by a political movement that can argue and bicker among itself without fear of collapse as was the fate of the NAR. This is so because everyone has maintained his identity and the minority elements inside the Government can, in fact, play the role of an opposition on the inside. With six and two seats respectively, the COP and the TOP would never have seen the inner sanctum of power if the traditional methods had been applied.

Can the country get accustomed to political parties that are not seeking to become hegemonic and dominant, but rather are only seeking to share power? The psychological shift for a political party that is campaigning alongside allies in seeking to capture power on a shared basis as opposed to seeking to capture all power is a very different approach. Parties that have no hope of ever being in government now have that chance. In many respects, the People’s Partnership may be ahead of itself in not really understanding the possibilities available to them, while the PNM can only hope that they can get the Partnership to fracture and descend into open hostility among themselves.

It is unlikely that the PNM would contemplate partners as their core philosophy is to stand alone and capture all power. The sustenance of the People’s Partnership requires different thinking about power towards a desire to share it, rather than to own all of it. For the time being, that is what divides the People’s Partnership from the PNM.


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