Voters in Trinidad and Tobago are preparing to go to the polls on Monday 5 November, in the long-anticipated general election to choose 41 MPs for the House of Representatives. The party that wins a majority will form the next government, but as campaigning politicians and political analysts alike point out, there's more at stake. Special majorities of two thirds and three quarters of the votes in the House are required to amend specific sections of the Trinidad and Tobago constitution. The current ruling party has promised that constitution reform will be high on the agenda if it is re-elected; opposition parties and civic groups fear a new constitution that concentrates power in the hands of the executive and weakens legislative and judicial checks and balances.
Traditionally, political parties in Trinidad and Tobago have attracted support along more or less ethnic lines. The People's National Movement (PNM), which currently forms the government under political leader and prime minister Patrick Manning, has its main power base among urban Afro-Trinidadians. The United National Congress (UNC), fighting the election under the controversial co-leadership of former prime minister Basdeo Panday and financier Jack Warner, has its core support among rural Indo-Trinidadians. Complicating the picture is the Congress of the People (COP), led by former government minister Winston Dookeran. Originally a splinter group of former UNC members, the COP — fighting its first election — has managed to attract support from disaffected members of both other parties, from “floating” voters, and from the country's disenchanted mixed-race middle class.
In Trinidad and Tobago's first-past-the-post electoral system, third parties have rarely fared well. Recent opinion polls have been highly contradictory; some suggest the COP may win more votes than the UNC and even run neck-and-neck with the PNM. But with the race coming down to a handful of marginal constituencies, it's entirely possible the COP could win a third of the popular vote nationwide and no seats in the House. Three days ahead of the election, it's still too close to call.
This situation — compounded by a baroquely complicated sequence of scandals, corruption accusations, and political floor-crossings in the last seven or eight years — has led to a highly recriminatory campaign season, with unprecedented spending on campaign advertising. Many bloggers have responded with frustration to the high jinks and low blows. Both The Manicou Report and Ramblings and Reason expressed dismay that the PNM and UNC have attempted to court younger voters not by addressing their serious concerns but by staging expensive concerts often featuring foreign performers. As Manicou puts it:
I cringe when I think of the meeting where this decision was made. Yeah, why don't we hold a “Youth Vibes Rally” with a lot of reggae stars. I hear the kids like that kind of thing”…. Is that their perception of the youth? Partiers and limers who have no interest in issues?
Trinidad Media Arts & Culture has been posting a series of angry, outspoken analyses not just of the parties and their campaigns but of media coverage — which, he argues, has consistently downplayed the groundswell of support for the COP:
The sick thing is, this is the strongest, most rational party in terms of all the standards the public claims to desire: incorruptibility; technocratic knowledge; and proven competence, yet it's the least visible and most vulnerable of the three.
Meanwhile, Taran Rampersad, who emphasises that he has no political affiliation, worries that “people are simply following the pointing fingers from one side to another with what appears to be almost no critical thinking involved”, and offers two recent conversations as evidence. Jonathan Ali argues that the party leaders should engage in a televised debate: “Imagine what that could mean for our politics.” And after seeing what she describes as “the latest episode of T&T’s political soap opera”, in which the UNC appeared to trivialise a domestic violence accusation to score a political point, Francomenz is left speechless: “I’m so stunned I can’t think of a single witty thing to say.”
But finding witty things to say under any and all circumstances is a classic Trinidadian trait (and coping technique), and perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the online coverage of this campaign has been the emergence of satirical blogs deploying good old-fashioned Trinidadian picong — a kind of relentless, merciless backtalking banter.
It seems to have been sparked off by the launch in late August of The Secret Blog of Patrick Manning, supposedly offering a glimpse “inside the mind of Trinidad & Tobago's Prime Minister”, with occasional interjections from his wife Hazel Manning, the current minister of education. The “Manning blogger” has offered tongue-in-cheek takes on the new multi-million-dollar prime ministerial residence, the ousting of longtime PNM MP Kenneth Valley, and the prime minister's alleged makeover at the hands of Cuban doctors. Soon the blog was attracting attention from the mainstream press; GV's own Georgia Popplewell even scored an interview with the “Manning blogger” but didn't manage to penetrate his (or her?) anonymity.
Soon The Secret Blog was getting comments from readers purporting to be other political figures, and before long the “Manning blogger” had a rival: The Extra Secret Blog of Basdeo Panday, replete with manipulated photos and even an audio parody of senior UNC politician Kamla Persad-Bissessar (who many party members had expected to lead the UNC into the elections, until she was out-manoeuvred at the last minute). The “Panday blogger” even promises to host a live election night chat.
Also contributing to this parody trend: a new blog called The Real Fake News in T&T, which was launched in October, offering satirical news reports, fake newspaper front pages, and doctored political ads.
Other bloggers have been getting into the fun-poking act. Trinidad Media Arts & Culture posts cartoons commenting on “the complacent electorate” and what he calls “A Word from God: The Shiva Poll”. The Manicou Report has started a “twelve days of elections” series. And Jumbie's Watch manages to find a photo of Patrick Manning bowing before an image of himself: “Doesn't it look like he is bowing before a dictator???”
The parody blogs aren't having fun for fun's sake. Political commentators have argued that, even without a possible future amendment, Trinidad and Tobago's constitutional and electoral systems tend to produce a House of Representatives that does not always actually represent the majority of citzens. A sizable part of the populace can feel effectively shut out of the political process. Under circumstances like these, satire becomes an especially powerful tool, and the laughter it provokes has a sharp edge.