Post 381.

As election season blows in, many of us, perhaps a growing number, continue to hope that political parties will fight a clean campaign. I think particularly of young people, voting and perhaps paying attention for the first time, and the example they will see. I think of the young women being trained by the Caribbean Institute for Women in Leadership (CIWiL) and their fears they have about the greater risks they face as future candidates when the fight for power gets dirty.

In hoping for a clean battle, ordinary citizens have a tool to hold parties to account. It is a Code of Ethical Political Conduct, first created in 2014 and revised last year in time for the Local Government election. The Code is available on the website, www.politicalethicstt.org, and provides a basis for complaints to a Council for Responsible Political Behaviour, comprising citizens and political parties.

I joined the Council last year, as a representative of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women, and have learned a lot since. The Code encourages peaceful, free and fair elections, tolerance and respect for human rights. It secures parties’ commitment to refrain from practices that promote divisiveness and violence. All political parties – including emerging and small ones – should be a signatory to the Code, which means that they agree to uphold the integrity of the electoral process in their own campaign and in that of their rivals.

This may sound like a lot of nice, but ineffectual words except they refer to real challenges we face. In the last weeks, we have seen personal attacks on candidates in San Juan/Barataria, allegations of biased hamper distribution in some constituencies, racially-opportunistic posturing by sitting MPs, and even months of instability in Guyana created by lack of electoral integrity. The goal is to stop descent into hate and violence through building consensus on some basic ethics to which we can all agree.

All over the world, codes such as these are used by citizens to report abuses of persons and power, and to argue that basic decency should not be collateral damage of politicians’ ground war. From a broader perspective, we should do whatever we can wherever we can to promote peace, for a more politically peaceful society is also one with greater peacefulness in communities and families.

The Council starts election monitoring three months prior to 5th anniversary date of the last election, or three months before an election is normally considered due. It monitors political parties, candidates and supporters’ adherence to the code, often on the basis of citizens’ complaints of violation of the Code to the Council web page, or the email info@politicalethicstt.org.

I’ve been impressed and guided by the complaints that come in, which show how many citizens value fairness, are appalled by demeaning language and disgusted by corruption, and believe that candidates’ gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion should not be attacked or a basis for discrimination.  

The Code also prohibits use of rewards, such as money and groceries, to induce citizens to join a party, attend a public meeting or vote for a candidate. I wrote my PhD on, among other things, election campaigning in a marginal constituency in 2002, and I can tell you, with full certainty from over a year of fieldwork, that inducements were common practice then, particularly for a party in power with access to welfare and other resources.

Poor voters would be threatened with loss of CEPEP or URP jobs if they didn’t visibly campaign. Poor people are smarter than politicians though. For all of them would talk about wearing the shirt and waving the flag, before voting how they choose. In a sense, this is why political parties get desperate and resort to all kinds of shadowy strategies – particularly when it is a close call, as in this election, and when momentum builds to do anything you must to win.

The Code enables us to not simply be voters, but to informally govern the hustings and to assert the terms and conditions by which competing parties should abide. It gives us power during the campaign and not just at the ballot box. It says that ‘we the people’ are watching. The Council has no legal teeth, but ethical words and deeds should not have to be enforced with a heavy hand. They should be a symbol of all that a party stands for, and being regularly reminded of that expectation by a cross-section of citizens should suffice.

Post 345.

With Monday’s “election budget” delivering promises to increase CEPEP and URP wages by 15%, ethnographic look at some of these workers shows the realpolitik of expenditures and elections.

The workers appearing here are members of a neighbourhood of squatters who often petition their political representatives for basic amenities. They also participate as women and men whose area of residence carries social stigma. They participate in general and local-level election campaigns and voting. Yet, they do not do so out of civic virtue or for an imagined greater good.

Through informal actions such as talking to a party activist or formal actions such as registering for a party group, these low-income workers-voters establish personal and reciprocal networks with higher-level party loyalists woven into government offices and practices.

Indeed, contacts with a party activist is key to employment. Leroy explained that an extended family member was “expecting PNM to be back in power and told me I could get a CEPEP work because he knew people and was in the campaigning thing”.

As Baby Girl described, “The URP was passing around to get names, they was using a voting list and asking people if they were voting or not. I say why vote if I not getting work and just before the election I get a ‘10 days’. I took it and then for the election helped them campaign by going around with a list asking people to vote and organising a car for them. They gave us breakfast, lunch and even dinner. All campaigning people got a promise for a ‘10 days’. I got mine and they told me I would get one every other fortnight. We had to wait to see who won the election…UNC and PNM wasn’t giving jobs to who was seen in a PNM or UNC rally or t-shirt or with a flag”.

Baby Girl had secured successive URP jobs through campaigning for the UNC, but could not turn around and openly support the PNM. She, therefore, had no contacts to turn to when the UNC lost power. However, she felt she secured a URP job under the PNM because she declared she would vote for the party.

The elision between squatters, voters, party activists and workers also plays out in CEPEP and URP work teams. As Leroy reflected, “I feel working CEPEP, if a person want to say he belong to a different party, he will keep that to himself. Either belong or keep silent. You supposed to hush your mouth if you are a UNC on the job”.

Renegade agreed, “you have to act like you belong to one party, that is how de contractor puts it to you. He tells you “is PNM gave you this work and if you don’t support them, your job could be jeopardized”. He tells us we have to go to rallies. He told us we had to join the party, but that was nice to now have a card and number”. Josanne added that workers are “mainly PNM, but half the workers are UNC playing PNM to get a work. If they a UNC we run them out”.

After getting a CEPEP or URP job, joining a party and helping campaign is common practice. Usually, the work involves sticking posters, handing out fliers, bringing in people, going to rallies, helping to set up tents, and being “up and down night and day” with the party. The Constituency Executive also encourages workers that are members of or join party groups to see themselves as “agents of the party” and as “PNM representatives there every day in the wider community”.

In a context of high unemployment, economic discontent, scarcity, and difficulty accessing social resources, governing parties rely on these patron-client relations to win elections, control dissidence, and secure loyalty and dependence.

Giving high visibility and higher wages to CEPEP and URP is not simply about assuaging poverty and destitution, distributing income and providing social security. Deployment of state funds between those in authority and those that need their help is a means to electoral ends. Formal state channels are merely structure for extending political influence through informal contacts, especially in marginal constituencies.

Partisan allocation, however, creates the threat of resentment among those excluded, and fears of loss of power among those who benefit, fueling the election battle as citizens are mobilized into voters. Taxpayers will fund Colm’s campaign strategy. If they get their politics right, at least some workers in insecure communities gain a better chance of making ends meet.