I must give credit to Kyle Skeeto Amos for the headline of this piece. His contemplation on the nature of our democracy is nothing short of brilliant. That said, I want to use another story, the one about the hikers and the lion, to perhaps identify why there is no ‘F’ in democracy.
I first heard the story many years ago when I was probably about 16 years old; the lesson, however, has stayed with me till this day.
Two hikers are making their way through the jungle when they begin to hear rustling in the bushes. A lion emerges and slowly starts making its way towards them. One of the hikers drops his bags and bends over to tighten his shoe laces. Watching in obvious confusion, his companion eventually declares without reservation that “We cannot outrun the lion.”
“I know,” comes the emphatic reply from the first hiker. “I intend to outrun you!”
The story was originally told to me at a time when I was having issues choosing which battles to fight and identifying the true nature of the conflict in front of me.
Of course, at the time I did not contemplate the obvious connotations of self-preservation inherent in such an analogy. Since I was at least 100 pounds lighter at the time and in the prime of my fitness, I didn’t see myself as the one likely to lose the foot race in that scenario either. But that is a discussion for another time.
I want to fast-forward to 2017 and apply the story to our two dominant political parties. I humbly submit that there are a few lessons in it for the PNM and its supporters. If you argue that the Peoples’ Partnership was the worst government that the country has ever seen, it does precious little for the country to use them as the standard for your own term in office.
In other words, if the PPG dropped the bar of good governance to the same level as the white line in the road, then if you are only a few centimetres above that, please don’t expect us to start applauding.
In my view, what we have been seeing from the ruling party is simply not good enough and it has to do fundamentally with thinking that all that is required is to do better than your immediate predecessors.
And it is the genesis of this idea of relative governance that I want to focus on today.
As the electorate, we must see our involvement in governance as going beyond voting. During the attempt to pass the Constitution Amendment Bill 2014, academic and layman alike spoke to the inalienable right to vote and pointed out that those who had gone before us had fought for this right. We must, therefore, they noted, see it as a sacred trust and protect it accordingly.
I want to submit that such a view is at best myopic and limits the true nature of the struggle to transform the nature of our society. Bereft of any historical or empirical evidence, we have incorrectly equated the right to vote with democracy.
The first election in which we had the franchise in 1925 saw only 6% of the population eligible to vote; of that 6%, less than 15% actually exercised that right.
At that point, the criteria used to determine suitability for candidacy were more or less the same criteria—economic and social standing in that order—used to earn nomination by the Governor anyway. Even if we are to give leeway and say there was an improvement, beyond being able to speak in the Legislative Council, the elected members were in the minority and the Governor maintained absolute control of voting.
More importantly, the same class maintained its disproportionate level of representation.
Coming out of the Moyne Commission into the regional disturbances in the latter part of the 1930s, a recommendation was made to expand the franchise. Eventually, total adult suffrage was introduced and Trinidad and Tobago had its first one-person-one-vote election in 1946.
A theme of the unrest in this period was the right to self-governance. While it may be argued that voting is a key component of this, it cannot be held that attaining the right to vote was the same as attaining self-governance. The real issue of contention was the right to not just participate in the governance structures but the right to direct the course of those structures.
The changes to the Council in 1946 saw nine elected officials out of a total of 19 members. Even without Roadman Shaq’s quick math, you can see that the right to vote did not mean a controlling stake in governance.
In 2017, every single aspect of how we are governed is predicated on the notion that we are a democracy because we have the right to vote. What we in fact have—as the late UWI lecturer Dennis Pantin rightly described it—is a system of maximum leadership in which the winner takes all. So, I argue, it is the false equivalence which has stunted our political evolution.
Every party has seen its role as simply outrunning the other. If the country is not better off where it matters, it matters not how much better the PNM is than the UNC. Or vice-versa.
And, as a country, we have not been better off!
We have an obligation to collectively revisit our moorings and understand the nature of the plantation which we have perpetuated. For as long as we raise no objection to some being more equal than others, then we will continue to move forward without progress.
Our history is a history of racism; it is a history of colonialism; it is a history of inequity and injustice. The masses have always addressed these issues in the streets.
When are we going to have leaders who are less concerned with the simplicity of outrunning each other and are resolved to address these issues legislatively in the Parliament?