Of party politics and moral values
- Focus on Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados

Guyana Chronicle
November 28, 1999

THIS WEEKEND, as the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) determines the political fate of its leader, Edward Seaga, and Barbados agonises over rising crime and declining moral values - to which I will return - Trinidad and Tobago is preparing for a long, intensive election campaign for a new government possibly within the next 10 months.

At 69, and having led the JLP to three consecutive electoral defeats, Seaga has been leader of the party for some 25 years and a Prime Minister for nine (1980-89). He has already signalled that if he fails to secure a very convincing popular endorsement of his leadership at the JLP's convention that winds up this afternoon, he would resign his post come January 2000.

Seaga's leadership has been coming under increasing pressure. While he has mobilised his forces to prevent the likely victory of Pearnel Charles as a new deputy leader, he is still faced with the challenge to his own leadership at next year's convention by a former deputy leader, Mike Henry - campaign manager for Charles - should he choose to stay on until another convention.

Henry is currently banned from holding any office because of his open dispute with Seaga, a mercurial political fighter whose time for exit gracefully may have arrived, though he will not be easily dismissed by even his most formidable opponents, in or out of the JLP.

While Jamaicans across the political divide follow developments at this weekend's JLP convention, and the implications for the party and its leader should Seaga fail to get the ringing endorsement he has been skilfully orchestrating, the guessing game has started about the likely outcome of a new general election in Trinidad and Tobago. It was promised last Sunday by Prime Minister Basdeo Panday in "less than a year".

Trinidad Poll

Why Panday has chosen to put the country on an election footing now with fully one year more to go for his United National Congress (UNC)-led first term government plus an additional constitutionally permitted three months more for such a poll, may baffle supporters and opponents alike.

They should know how anxious he would be to maximise and consolidate social and economic gains with increased earnings from petrol dollars, and recover lost ground from this year's local government election. Yes, as he seeks to make good on his boast at the UNC's fourth anniversary in power rally last Sunday that he was aiming at 24-26 of the 36 parliamentary seats at stake.

As one informed media colleague remarked to me last week, Panday has himself admitted that the UNC at present was far from being a "well-oiled machine". A question of relevance, therefore, is whether Panday has time to successfully "soup it up", as my colleague remarked, on his own given "less than a year" election deadline.

Panday's political sagacity is something his arch rival for power, Patrick Manning's People's National Movement (PNM) can take for granted to its own peril. For a start, he would not want to repeat the mistake made by Manning himself in calling an early election in 1995 that brought defeat to the then governing PNM. Timing and an informed assessment of the mood of the electorate are very important in any free election.

The allegations of likely electoral malpractices, including gerrymandering of boundaries and an "unclean" voters register, have already started to flow from the UNC's opponents. This is not surprising. It is part of electioneering politics is some of our Caribbean Community states.

What is surprising is that some of the allegations are being given currency by rather controversial assumptions of respected commentators who would be aware how jealously the Electoral and Boundaries Commission (EBC), chaired by retired Chief Justice, Isaac Hyatali, guards its reputation for integrity and competence.

For all the political allegations and surprisingly biased positions already being assumed by some of these commentators, Trinidad and Tobago, like Barbados, has, for many years now, enjoyed a most healthy reputation in the conduct of free and fair elections. To tarnish this reputation for some expedient, short-term advantage, is a temptation to be stoutly and decently rejected.

Barbados' Agony

In Barbados, where activities continue this weekend to mark the country's 33rd anniversary of political independence leading up to the official finale on Tuesday, November 30, the problem is quite different to that of party politics either in Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago.

There, in a once pastoral society that has often served as a reference point for its civility, social cohesion, respect for law and order and good governance, it now seems to be in deep agony over declining moral values, escalating crime and a culture of aggression, rowdyism and lawlessness.

It is a distressing scenario for a people whose national motto is `Pride and Industry' and now clearly at odds with earlier flattering perceptions of them.

For instance, that of the Jamaican writer, John Hearne, as Barbados celebrates with month-long activities its 33rd anniversary of independence.

Writing on `What The Barbadian Means To Me', a year before Barbados's independence, Hearne had presented quite a warm, complimentary view of the Barbadian people: "There is a `wholeness' to the Barbadian that I have not found in any other English-speaking Caribbean territory; an awareness of himself as a `person' that is remarkable, enviable and, in every sense of the word, good..."

How Barbados has dramatically changed since then, and not just in the provision of comparatively sound multi-party democratic governance and a very impressive social infrastructure.

For all the flattering touristic profiles and concentrated efforts by successive governments to ensure good economic house-keeping and political stability, Barbados is also today in a state of moral crisis, unprecedented levels of crime, social divisions and youth rebellion.

It is a place where a government is trying hard to project a positive view of economic management as it copes with emerging racial tension, poverty, youth unemployment and combat gun and drug-related crimes.

At the same time, an older generation of Barbadians is decrying the nerve-wracking rudeness and vulgarities associated with the moral decadence of a so-called `ZR' and `ragamuffin' culture.

It is in this disturbing environment that we are learning of the shocking consequences among adult, youth and school children, of the flowering of a `wuk-up' culture that passes for entertainment.

Also, that some 40 per cent of marriages are collapsing after just 10 years, and at least a third of the population of some 260,000 now belong to an `unchurched' category, or not associated with any of the multitude of religious denominations and churches dotting the Barbados landscape.

The Anglican Bishop, Rufus Brome, recently lamented "the venom and hatred" in which the society is gripped as a government-appointed Committee for National Reconciliation, on which he sits, seeks to promote racial harmony.

On its 33rd independence anniversary, therefore, something seems to have gone terribly wrong with that perception of "wholeness" of the Barbadian in Caribbean society.

Of course, there are varying levels of manifestations elsewhere in the region of Barbados's crisis in moral values, the incidence of violent crimes and the social divisions and rebellion it faces. But this is no comfort, and rightly so, to the great majority of Barbadian people.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples