R. Rose
September 16, 2005

Elections and our political culture

Those among us who simply love an election campaign must be having a field day as we get closer and closer to the election date.

While the Opposition NDP is not as visibly active (especially in terms of public meetings and rallies) as it was some months ago, that is no indication that it is not out to fight a vigorous campaign. Perhaps it is re-arranging its own house to return to the fray. In the meantime the ULP, Government and party alike, is having a field day. When is not government opening something or handing over something else, is ULP launching a candidate. Every little thing becomes a big thing the nearer one gets to the starting game. {{more}}

As usual, one “big thing” at every function is the guessing game about the date of the election. It is a game played since the time of the late Milton Cato, right through Mitchell, Eustace and now Ralph is calling the shots. However it is a game that can backfire, as witnessed Cato in 1984 and Eustace in 2001. Not all the God-given dates work for the incumbent. As stale as the game is though, there is some strange attraction in it, especially for supporters of whatever party is in power. Their leader teases, and they respond. That’s our politics.

What it does hide though is the constitutional issue underpinning the game, the question of the almost absolute power of a Prime Minister. The dissolution of Parliament is one such area where the P.M. has such awesome power. It is a matter which the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) has raised and on which it has canvassed public opinion. In that more sober atmosphere many concerns were expressed as to that right to dissolve Parliament and call elections being the sole preserve of the Prime Minister. But when it comes to the campaign trail, few seem to care. We seem to enjoy the “Keep dem guessing” game.

Even though the Constitutional review process has been somewhat put in the shade by the rough – and-tumble of electoral politics, it is far from over. The substantive Report provided to Parliament by the CRC provides a very relevant basis for further in-depth discussion and dialogue on the fundamental issues. In the meantime, and even before the Constitution itself is amended, there are many practical steps that can be taken to improve our system of governance. That is the point made by CRC Research Officer Winfield Williams in a newspaper article last week. He could not have been more correct. Laying the blame for a lack of action on the CRC as he seemed to be implying, is unfair though. It is our political culture and over-emphasis on the electoral process which is overshadowing the need for constitutional reform.

Mr. Williams gave two examples of concrete areas where action can be taken without waiting on the constitutional amendments. The appointment of Senators is one such area, but it is crystal clear to me, and I do hope I am proven wrong, that our present political culture is such that, within the existing parties, the appointment of senators is considered to be as much a part of rewarding the faithful as it is about promoting the narrow interests of the political parties. That is the kind of battle we must fight if we want to democratize our governance system.

It is a very difficult battle in the circumstances, particularly in the elections environment. For, in this environment, the overriding concern seems to be “which side are you on?” Placing the interest of the nation above that of one side or another is always a challenge in such an atmosphere. Every word, every utterance is analyzed to see whether it indicates support for this or that party, not whether one supports a particular policy. That is where one must begin, with policies which serve and promote the interest of our people, and it must be the yardstick by which one must judge a party, not fickle, subjective and personal considerations.

These trivial sentiments emerge more and more as one goes along the electoral trail. Sometimes I am amused by some ideas which are put forward. Recently, for instance there has been a rash of statements and comments relating to performances at the polls, as if this is the only judge of one’s worth. Last week I had to take issue with one politician, who should know better, for pandering to such views. If Mr. X or Madame Y contests a seat and gets only 25 votes as against 4000 for the winner, does it mean that Mr. X or Madame Y is not capable of making a valid contribution to our development?

At elections, it is not only the capacity of the candidate which is judged but a range of other factors– party, opponent, political climate at the time etc. etc. Why then do we consider someone who contested a seat and didn’t win as a “political reject”? Is that not condemning precious human resources to the dung heap? Is it not a stigma that we have created which can itself act as a barrier to keep out capable persons from the electoral fray? Why are elections treated differently to other contests?

In sport for instance, a team may enter a competition and be heavily trounced in its first couple years but improve to be a champion team later on. Do we dismiss them from the outset as “failures”? In life itself, in business, in exams, in job-seeking, people often fail many times before they succeed. We must applaud their persistence, the will to succeed and the determination to find a way to do so and to be able to accomplish it.

So let us try very hard to change the narrow, backward mindset which blinds us to political choices. It is time we rise above the pettiness of sniping at this and that, of being stuck in time and thought and let us instead train our sights on development goals and how we can work together to achieve them. Saying that a person got only 25 votes in such and such an election may bring a good laugh, nothing else. Congratulate those who are brave enough to try, judge them on their worth, not cheap political considerations.

Finally, let me leave you with a quote provided by a good friend and taken from Benjamin E. Mays: A legacy of his wit and wisdom (1984). “It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is sin”.