Why Tobago's elections matter beyond T&T


Tobago leads the way for Caribbean multi-island nations…Perhaps?


By Tony Fraser

Tobagonians asserted their desire for greater levels of internal self-government within the unitary state of Trinidad and Tobago when they completely rejected the central government-sponsored Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) in 21 January elections.
In a vote held to determine which party would have control of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) and the local affairs of the sister island, Orville London and the Tobago-based Council of the People’s National Movement (PNM) obliterated the TOP by winning all 12 electoral districts.
“This is not an Orville London or PNM victory; this is a victory for the people of Tobago,” said Mr London.
He now has the larger issue of constitutional reform to change the relationship between the bigger and smaller island on his mind.
Directing his comments to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and the central government in Port of Spain, Mr London said: “It is now time for both parties to set aside and work to ensure that the self-government promised to Tobago is delivered.”
Self-government and sharing
At the heart of the election campaign was the issue of greater autonomy and internal self-government for Tobago, inclusive of economic independence to fund the development of the island.
Among other changes, Tobago is insisting that it should have an entitlement to a significant portion of the revenues earned from offshore natural gas, a volume of which is located in waters off Tobago and closer to the sister isle than to mainland Trinidad.
“We must get the billions of dollars from the natural gas in Tobago waters to fund the development of Tobago to make it comparable to Trinidad,” said Tobago economist Winford James.
One proposal in the constitutional reform bill which the government unilaterally decided to take to parliament on the eve of the THA poll proposed the extension of the boundary line for the internal waters between Trinidad and Tobago to 11 miles from the existing 6-mile limit.
Dr James, a Tobagonian political analyst at the University of the West Indies who has logged Tobago’s economic potential, asked the questions many Tobagonians wanted answered.
“What is the basis for the figure 11? Why not 12 or 100? Are these 11 miles part of the definition of Tobago ? If not, what are they related to? Do they include oil and gas resources? And to what extent?” Dr James said.
When the bill reached the House of Representatives, days before the election, the opposition PNM and a number of individuals and groups in Tobago and Trinidad indicated their objections to the timing.
The PNM made it clear that it would not support the bill, even though the Prime Minister ridiculed the opposition for standing in the way of Tobago achieving self-government, as determined in the legislation.
Commentators noted that among the objections to the draft legislation was the fact that it came out of the office of the Attorney General in Trinidad.
It had not been subject to consultation with the THA and the people of Tobago.
Observers also pointed out that a draft reform produced by a team appointed by the THA - including the Tobago Organisation of the People, which belongs to the governing coalition - was largely ignored in the government’s bill.
“In the context of an election campaign, this is indecent haste, not unlike the political indecency of the early proclamation of Section 34,” Dr James said in a stinging political commentary, referring to the constitutional reform legislation controversy of 2012.
He added: “It would have been far better if the proposed legislation had been discussed before the date of the elections was set, to avoid loading public debate on the bill with unnecessary and retarding emotionalism.
“But naked, self-accommodating opportunism is the chosen way of this government.”
PM promises consultation
Having conceded defeat on the night, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar promised to work with the THA, as elected, "in the interest of developing Tobago”.
“The election is over and let us put aside our political differences and work together, as all that matters now is the development of Tobago," Mrs Persad-Bissessar said after the result.
The test of the sincerity of Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar and her government to grant full internal self-government to Tobago will be determined by whether or not she continues to show the same enthusiasm for granting greater powers to an Assembly now it is controlled by the PNM.
Her coalition government had clearly hoped during the campaign that the government’s coalition partner TOP would be in office today.
National significance
Another major issue coming out of the Tobago election, one that must concern the ruling four-party coalition People’s Partnership, is that Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar had staked her party’s record of governance on the outcome of the election.
She spent the better part of the last two weeks before the election being at the front of the campaign in Tobago.
The ruling party also pumped large financial and other resources into the election.
“Yet 12-none, they did not get a seat,” said Trinidad opposition MP Colm Imbert on the day after the election in the national parliament.
“Once again, Tobago has lit the candle to show Trinidad and Tobago the way,” was the not unexpected comment by national PNM and opposition leader Keith Rowley.
The PNM leader is happy to project the THA results to local government elections later this year and to general elections which are constitutionally due by 2015.
What the THA poll most assuredly reflected was a significant shift away from the TOP and the People’s Partnership.
A mere two-and-a-half years ago in the general elections, two candidates of the TOP, operating under the banner of the People’s Partnership (PP) coalition, handsomely won the two Parliamentary seats in Tobago.
Today, the TOP and the PP have not been able to win even one of the 12 electoral districts in Tobago.
“The people of Tobago showed that they do not support immorality in public affairs,” is the explanation given by Dr Vanus James, citing the allegations of corruption and mismanagement that have haunted the PP in Trinidad.
The Trinidad Guardian said in an editorial: “The rejection of [TOP leader] Ashworth Jack... was as much an endorsement of the PNM governance and campaign management as it was an electoral condemnation of the TOP and the very present People’s Partnership government.”
“It is important that we take heed of what is going on and adjust our politics accordingly. It is an important reflection of what the people are feeling,” said government minister Dr Lincoln Douglas.
Caribbean significance
A constitutional relationship between Trinidad and Tobago, acceptable to the people of Trinidad’s “sister isle”, could serve as a model for the other multi-island states in the Caribbean Sea, which also have their concerns about “big-island” domination.
The political avalanche of the PNM in Tobago has its negatives.
Chief Secretary London said: “Governance is going to be difficult without an opposition.”
All the same, Mr London says the legal experts argue that there are no problems in having a THA without a minority leader and opposition.
Tobago is not the first smaller state in a twin-island state grappling with the possibilities of secession.
In Barbuda, the issue of secession has rumbled on since 1980, particularly over whether a clause in the 1980 constitutional Report had already pencilled in secession into the constitution of Antigua and Barbuda.
Nevis held a referendum on independence from St Kitts in 1998. It failed to win the necessary two-thirds majority.
"The quest for independence and self-determination is by no means exclusive to Nevis, in every respect it is a global trend. There are certain theoretical underpinnings that have and will continue to inform Nevis' quest for secession,” says the website nevisindependence.com.
Currently, the Nevis Reformation Party controls three of the island’s five seats.
Back in Tobago, the PNM THA faces new challenges without an official opposition.
Winston Murray, who along with ANR Robinson agitated for and succeeded in having the Tobago House of Assembly created in 1980, believes this is an opportunity for Chief Secretary London to usher in a new phase in the development of Tobago.
“He [London] has to go into the villages and communities and find the men and women with the best minds and have them discuss plans and programmes for Tobago,” Dr Murray said.
Dr Murray has taught political science and economics at American universities, is known for once raising what he said was a “Tobago flag” and now runs a community college in Tobago.
He told Caribbean Intelligence© that Mr London had to utilise non-governmental organisations to get feedback and get community development going.
It is a challenge that multi-island small states in the Caribbean will surely be following as they live and vote in the shadow of their larger neighbours.