Home / View Point / Guest Columns / Despite popular belief, there’s no ‘F’ in democracy; why T&T has only known maximum leadership

Despite popular belief, there’s no ‘F’ in democracy; why T&T has only known maximum leadership

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.

Photo: A hungry lion spots its next meal.
(Copyright Atif Saeed)

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.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) and Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar SC.
(Copyright Power102fm)

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.

Photo: Two spectators take a selfie during Trinidad and Tobago’s 2016 Independence Day Parade celebrations.
(Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)

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.

Photo: The Joint Trade Union Movement protests against Section 34 during the People’s Partnership Government’s administration.

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.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (right) and his wife Sharon during 2017 Independence Day celebrations.
(Copyright Office of the Prime Minister)

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?

About Akins Vidale

Akins Vidale
Akins Vidale lectures at the Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies and is a UWI graduate with a B.A. in History. He has served as the president of the Trinidad Youth Council and is the General Secretary of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs (FITUN). Read his blog: http://akinsvidale.wordpress.com/

Check Also

Daly Bread: Hope! Can T&T find way past “dire social disorder”?

My first column on the subject of hope was written in July 2002. Currently, it …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. “Bereft of any historical or empirical evidence, we have incorrectly equated the right to vote with democracy.” The author then proceeds to identify the main issue as the right to direct structures of governance rather than, what I see as, passive participation expressed in the act of voting. The leaders of the main political parties will not have any interest in anything other than outrunning each other because the voting public have little or no interest in the full utility of democratic structures. While I believe the author is correct in his deduction that “it cannot be held that attaining the right to vote was the same as attaining self-governance”, the act of voting by the population may have little to do with any interest in self-governance. So it is easy to tout the right to vote as the pillar of democracy and even sensationalize it to the point that reluctance to vote would compromise that pillar but that rhetoric is only won by the same minds that believe that by voting, effective/sufficient governance is achieved. Whether this belief is due to mental laziness or bias is up for research and debate but my belief is that the origin would lie in how we are educated rather than in what is taught. While an examination of history is always key to some of the answers that we seek, if history keeps repeating itself then we need to ask ‘why’ instead of ‘what’ and then ask how do we change it. I really believe that raising the oft repeated repertoire of ‘well because history, racism, corruption…’ is in the category of ‘what’. We need to move past that conversation. Not just among the handful who already discuss ‘why’ and the 1% of that handful that discuss ‘how’, it needs to move into the mechanisms of education of the country rather than into the content.

  2. I really think the “outrun the other” mentality stems from the fact that there truly are no major ideological differences between the UNC and PNM in a way that transforms any aspect of the country.
    So regardless of who we vote for, we know that the health care system, the education system, the electoral system etc etc is going to remain largely the same.
    When you don’t have philosophical differences to justify or sell to people, all that’s left to do is say well at least I’m not as horrible as the other side.

  3. Look how lovely they look especially the madam. Is only we who allow ourselves to be battered by them. All politicians are friends with each other. Don’t be mislead! LOOK!

  4. Wonder if they are they doing the nasty . lmao .

  5. Politicians have a morality of their own

  6. You see that line “we have incorrectly eqauted the right vote with democracy.”
    The amout cuss I have gotten for using that line of thinking. It was always follwed with ” If you dont vote you dont have a say”.