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“Silly Season” with Tobago's Elections

Trinidad and Tobago is often referred to as one country, which, of course, it is. But they are also two distinct islands, each with its own identity, not the least of which is political. Tobago will be holding its Tobago House of Assembly elections on Monday, January 21 – and though these are not national elections, it is still an important vote, as the result will determine who will steer the semi-autonomous body which governs several key functions of what Trinidadians refer to as “the sister isle”. The THA's twelve elected officials will essentially administer the island of Tobago.

Three main candidates are running for the Chief Secretary seat. The incumbent is Orville London, who has occupied that office for the past 12 years and is affiliated with the People's National Movement, the party that the current government of Trinidad and Tobago ousted in the 24 May 2010 general election. The People's Partnership government is being represented by Ashworth Jack of the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP). Former Chief Secretary Hochoy Charles, who held the position during the National Alliance for Reconstruction‘s administration (1986-1991), now represents an organisation called The Platform of Truth. All three hopefuls faced off in the twin island nation's first ever live political debate last week Thursday, which sparked some interesting commentary on Facebook – but only one political blogger, The Eternal Pantomime, seemed interested in examining the goings-on in greater detail. Even before the debate aired, she posted this update:

All of Tobago and most of Trinidad is waiting with bated breath to see how Hochoy Charles, Orville London and Ashworth Jack will perform.

I expect Jack to come out swinging about how Tobago has been mismanaged under both Hochoy Charles (Ring Bang Adda) and London (MilShirv and PNM mismanagement for how many years). In both instances Mr Jack may well have some substance, but…Jack’s biggest achievement tonight will be to distract the Tobago Audience [from]:
1. His association with the UNC, despite the fact that he is being financed and prepared by the UNC

2. All of the corruption, squandermania and mismanagement that has taken place under Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s tenure.

Jack will be trying hard to switch focus from Section 34, the SoE, Reshmi Ramnarine, Gopaul Contract, the $7b Highway, and the most recent move to breach our Constitution, Warner’s announcement that soldiers will be given powers of arrest. That announcement has occurred with nary a comment from any corner…everyone so distracted with THA Elections and getting Hilton Sandy to apologise that they've missed the implications of Warner attempting to usurp the power of the President – Commander in Chief of the Army – as well as pervert the purpose of the nation’s Defence Force.

The post went on to address the contentious issue of a controversial reference made to the country's Indian population, by PNM candidate Hilton Sandy:

Let me say unequivocally that Sandy’s comment was asinine. It is common knowledge that Tobagonians are clannish and protective of their culture and space…even Afro-Trinidadians are treated like outsiders. It is also common knowledge that in the past decade the Indian population in Tobago has increased steadily and since the last election there have been more and more Indians moving over to Tobago. But for Sandy to make the comment is to indicate that:

1:Indians aren’t considered to be part of Trinidad and Tobago and;

2: The PNM is openly indulging in race politics as well.

But let’s also not lose sight of the fact that Tobagonians have ample reasons to be wary and cautious of a UNC government. And unfortunately, UNC has come to be equated with Indian, just as PNM is equated with African.

Subsequent to the debate, the blogger, Rhoda Bharath, wrote this post:

Before Tobago was joined to Trinidad the island ran its own affairs, then after the warding in 1898 the island was treated like a dependent unwanted child. It was reliant on Trinidad to make every decision for it. The island was historically underdeveloped, and because PNM was the party in power the longest that is the one grouse they have had with the PNM and for which London is now facing some pressure. How London has managed Tobago’s budget and development is perhaps his greatest challenge in this election.

Enter from stage right Ashworth Jack, hungry for the position of Chief Secretary. Had the TOP stood on its own in Tobago and really been an independent party, Jack might actually be far more popular than London is right now because after 12 years I believe many Tobagonians want a different type of THA. But the fear of the UNC has galvanized support behind London’s PNM in a way that had the political landscape been different we would not have experienced such pro-PNM enthusiasm.

Tobagonians are looking on at Trinidad battling some of the worst corruption, nepotism, mismanagement and constitutional crises ever. It doesn’t help the TOP’s cause either that the UNC has so often insulted and taken pot shots at Keith Rowley, PNM Opposition Leader and another son of the soil. Tobagonians are considering what the UNC’s policies in office could mean for them.

The Tobago House of Assembly; photo by Angelo Bissessarsingh

She explained:

Ownership, independence and autonomy means a lot to Tobagonians. And that’s why this THA Act and the issue of maritime boundaries are so crucial. If..there [are] fuel deposits in the seabed off Tobago, then the island stands to experience an economic boom…but there is the very real fear that a TOP controlled by the UNC will hoodwink and cheat Tobago out of its birthright and that Ashworth Jack will sellout Tobagonians.

Bharath again addressed the issue of race:

Tobagonians are suspicious of Trinidadians in general; but they are also far more suspicious of Trinidadians wanting to buy up their lands and deny them their birthright. In the last ten years the ethnic landscape of the island has changed dramatically. There are more Indians living and working in Tobago now than any other time, an island to which Indians have no historical ties. And now in 2012 it appears to Tobagonians that Trinidadians, particularly Indo-Trinidadians are taking over their island. It doesn’t help either that the UNC has made so many race-related comments…

That Hilton Sandy’s comment was inelegant and racist is not in question. It should never have been said. But the statement reveals some of the concerns of Tobagonians under a TOP government. And the same Jack…who was caught using a cheat sheet at last Thursday’s debate is now setting himself up to become Tobago’s Cheat Secretary.

In a follow-up post, she suggested that even the way in which the debate was organised seemed disrespectful of Tobagonians:

The Debate had a closed off and select audience. All Tobagonians couldnt attend. Remember this is THA elections…it affects Tobagonians more than it could ever affect Trinidadians. The moderator was a Trinidadian of Indian origin. The panellists presenting the questions both sounded distinctly Trinidadian. The venue was the government owned Magdalena Hotel. The production team was Lisa Wickham, a Trinidadian consultant. The research team that came up with the questions were all from the UWI campus and the names I saw listed featured mostly Trinidadian researchers from the University’s research sphere.

The message sent was that this debate was a production by Trinidadian for Trinidadians about a Tobagonian issue.

As the campaigning becomes more intense in the lead-up to Monday's elections, The Eternal Pantomime continues to keep an eye on developments. She posted this yesterday:

This weekend saw what amounted to a Blitz Krieg from the TOP. The Prime Minister, who a month ago said that the UNC was not running the TOP campaign just lending logistical support, was at Jack’s side being logistical as she attended church with him, read scripture to the congregation during the ceremony and then eventually set of on a walkabout of Mason Hall, Ashworth Jack’s seat in the THA and the village that Keith Rowley is from.

In the blogosphere the comments flew fast and quick, with many Tobagonians wondering online and out loud how a PM who only just recently insulted Keith Rowley for attending a religious event at the Divali Nagar, could now show up at a Full Gospel Church and participate in the service considering her Hindu Faith…..ironies, I suppose.

While in Roxborough last evening a fiery Rowley and London talked about the various missteps of both Ashworth Jack and the UNC. It remains to be seen which campaign style will now work for Tobagonians and whose policies (if any) they are interested in.

It’s silly season in full force these next seven days.

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