Developing Peoples’ Active Participation in Trinidad and Tobago’s General Elections
In the run up to #GETT2020 social media calls made by youth and civil society organisations for a debate between the main parties soon evolved into a broader discussion about empowerment of the people, the accountability of the candidates selected, and consolidating a new type of interactive and participatory politics.
Dialogue not ‘Debate’
These loud calls for an elections debate between the candidates are part of the increasingly intense competition for a space in which to listen to and dialogue with the candidates selected about their plans, manifestoes and programmes as they seek permission to represent Trinidad and Tobago’s 41 constituencies.
The standard and most well-known debate format – copied from the practices perfected in the United States – is one of the rituals of contemporary election campaigns, and are often, in fact more often than not, adversarial and gladiatorial TV events. They are promoted in a way similar to that of a championship boxing bout. There’s much noise and little substance as candidates battle to score points against each other and appeal to their particular supporters. And to be photogenic on TV. Politics is not picong though!
With the calls for a debate, and following an intervention by several Tobagonian civil society groups, discussion focused on the role of the social movements and civil society, the current arm’s length relationship between MPs and constituents and crucially, ways in which it may be closed.
In the Trinidad and Tobago context civil society comprises many social and cultural movements including village councils, businesses and enterprises, NGOs, Chambers of Commerce, Hoteliers Associations, farmers and fishermen’s associations, elders groups, Trinidad and Tobago Association of Retired People [TTARP], Police Youth Clubs, religious groups, mas camps, carnival organisers and participants, Pan Yards and Orchestras, sports clubs, writers, drama and arts guilds, unions, media houses, TV and radio stations, the media, NGOs political organisations and even the mainstream political parties. All are a part of civil society.
So with election campaigning underway and in full swing the call for closer interaction between constituents and the candidates selected to represent them was taken up by Channel Five Tobago who agreed to broadcast a series of ‘Conversations with Candidates’ of those seeking election in Tobago’s East and West constituencies.
Advertised as part of the Media House’s ‘Vote 2020 – The Decision is Yours’ coverage the broadcast ‘A Conversation With The Candidates’ was discussed with, co-organized and endorsed by several Tobagonian groups. including Youth Votes Matter TT, Tobago Entrepreneurs, Tobago Writers Guild, and Tobago Literacy Support; with endorsement by: Tobago Youth Council, Environment Tobago, Environmental Research Institute of Charlotteville, Tobago Jet Ski Association, Tobago Agricultural Society, Castara Tourism Development Association and the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association.
Historic Grassroots Initiative
This innovative grassroots initiative addresses the large gap between candidate selection and election; and for #GETT2020 this Candidate’s Forum provided an opportunity for the electorate to interrogate, consult and instruct the candidates.
This historic initiative is believed to be the first ever such event in Trinidad and Tobago in which the electorate has initiated meaningful dialogue with the candidates selected to represent them and who – in turn – can listen to the instructions given them by an informed electorate on the most pressing matters to be taken up in Parliament in regard to the communities from which they come.
In terms of the 7 candidates who are standing for election in Tobago’s East and West constituencies the Candidate’s Forum aims to be open up a new environment, a fresh way of doing things where the people interrogate the candidates and ask them to demonstrate how they’ll be accountable to us. So, in distinct contrast to the usual debate format, this election campaign event is not an argument between candidates imposed on us, but a forum to debate with and instruct those standing for election about what their electorate want from them, and what mechanisms can be put in place to hold them accountable to the constituents who vote to send them to Parliament.
Breaking New Ground to Discuss Matters of Local and National Interest
The event is pioneering in several ways. It opens up a vital space to generate discussion amongst people, breaks new ground in empowering the electorate to ventilate and air and express views on matters of concern regarding their communities as well as national issues.
It’s not as if there aren’t matters of a local and national interest for candidates to discuss, especially in a time of Covid-19 Lockdowns and potential second waves. Tourism and the economy, the proposed ANR Robinson airport expansion, crime, housing, land tenure, constitutional issues, governance, the status of Tobago, the cost of living, food insecurity, recurrent water and electricity outtages, police violence and impunity, health, education, economic problems, development, apparent financial corruption and austerity measures, environmental issues, cultural and social matters all require local debate and local and national intervention to identify and address the challenges faced by this twin island republic in the covid and post covid world.
The moderated conversations have been broadcast live in the run up to voting day on 10 August, and remain accessible on the TV station’s social media channels, and thousands of Tobagonians took the opportunity to dialogue with the candidates directly via social media and live phone in. Of seven candidates only one – Watson Duke Leader of the Progressive Democratic Patriots – failed to attend. Early analysis of social media interaction is of hundreds of comments and questions put to the candidates for their responses live on air and 10 000s Facebook views overall.
Musician and recording artist Xavier Edwardz, one of the young people behind the initial social media calls for a debate and who has used his extensive links and contacts with youth organisations to advocate for a candidates’ forum said that: “Party-based voting as implied by the name carries the essence of electing the body of people throwing the best ‘party‘. This movement is about fostering more informed and intelligent voting and living. Policy over party; people over politics, true progress over profits. The time is now and everyone feels it. Change is calling; we will heed it.”
Tobago Channel Five and Tobago Civil Society Presents: ‘Vote 2020 – The Decision is Yours’ ‘Public Conversations with the Candidates.’
Breakdown of 7 Candidates: Independents 2; One Tobago Voice 1; Progressive Democratic Patriots – 2; People’s National Movement – 2.
Tobago East Constituency – Incumbent Ayanna Webster-Roy faces two challengers -Watson Duke for the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) and Julianna Henry-King for the One Tobago Voice (OTV).
Tobago West incumbent Shamfa Cudjoe is challenged by Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) candidate Tashia Grace Burris and two independent candidates – Nickosy Phillips and Ricardo Phillip.