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Voting For Ourselves

"I Voted"; photo by Krishna Praveen, used under a (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

“I Voted”; photo by Krishna Praveen, used under a (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

Ever since I started blogging about the political landscape in Trinidad and Tobago, I frequently get asked who I’m voting for in the 2015 elections. The blog began as a way for me to cope with the growing helplessness and hopelessness I felt about living and working in Trinidad and Tobago in my adult years.

That despair hit a high—or low, depending on how you look at it— during the illegal state of emergency (SoE) announced by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar from her private residence in late August 2011.

The SoE broke precedent, as did many other actions of the People’s Partnership government during in its term in office. The manner of its announcement, the incoherent justifications given, and the fact that it lasted three whole months brought home to me, in concrete ways, how easy it is for a group of people to take away my freedom of movement, erode my rights as a citizen and essentially decide whether or not I fit the profile of a criminal.

I spent several weeks during that three-month period listening to friends defend the loss of freedom on the basis that it made them “feel safe”—this despite the fact that the SoE in fact did little to curb crime. By the time the SoE officially ended, in December 2011, I had decided that my tenure as a passive citizen was coming to an end.

Now, when people ask me who am I voting for in the next election, I tell them I’m voting for myself.

No, it’s not that I have tossed my hat into the electoral ring. Rather, I have invested in my civic education, because I no longer think that the problem with our politics resides in the governments we elect, but rather in the type of citizens and voters we have produced.

Despite the turbulence, oppression and violence that have shaped and developed the Caribbean region, thanks to the physical attributes of sea, sun and sand, it’s considered a laid-back place. And nowhere is this mythology more dominant than in Trinidad and Tobago.

Ours is a culture that is prone to last-minute preparation; to shutting down any new idea that requires hard work; to talk, talk and more talk; and a reluctant to take action that isn’t centred around pleasure. We like bacchanal, but we avoid conflict. We are quick to argue, but don’t like making people feel uncomfortable or bad, because we don’t believe in burning bridges. Back-scratching is a way of life here—to such an extent, in fact, that we’ve coined our own expression for it: to give a bligh.

This sort of culture has led to a laziness about our roles as citizens. In Trinidad and Tobago, “democracy” happens only once every five years, and starts and ends at the ballot box. “Parliament” is a building to point out to visitors as we drive through Port of Spain; and the role of prime ministers and members of parliament is to distribute food hampers and kiss babies once in a while.

We don’t know our history as a country; and even worse, we don’t know our laws. Nor do we care to obey them. We don’t understand the form of governance we have. “Westminster System” is merely a catch phrase. “Separation of powers” might as well be an obeah spell. And forget about discussing our Executive arm: the President, Chief Justice and Judiciary might as well be a council of wizards.

I made the decision to walk away from this type of civic laziness and educate myself. Exercising any muscle for the first time takes dedication and grit, and it didn’t take me long to realize that along with a civics program in schools, this country also needs better journalists and reporters. Short of a few columns in one or two daily newspapers, there is very little informed political commentary in the media. Talk radio is even worse, since it relies heavily on emotional opinion-sharing. I cannot underscore enough the key role of the media in changing the ways citizens think about and discuss issues.

The journey from 2011 to now has been challenging, exciting and tedious. It has involved lots of reading, writing and talking, not all of it pleasant, but all of it useful in helping me formulate, discard and re-shape my ideas about politics and governance. I look at politicians and voters differently now. And I have a carefully drawn up a list of criteria that political representation must meet in order to gain my support.

I no longer expect politicians to have integrity. Not because I believe all politicians are corrupt; but because no person is immune to being seduced by the trappings of power. Unchecked power will lead to imbalance and abuse. If an electorate doesn’t rouse itself and hold its elected government accountable, it will be abused by that very government. And that’s what we are currently facing.

Despite growing discontent with squandermania, corruption and weak leadership from the People’s Partnership government, not enough of the voting population is willing to step up and make its leaders accountable. Perhaps we fear victimization. Perhaps we are looking for a bligh. Perhaps we are too ignorant of what our role as citizens should be. Perhaps we need to spend some time in contemplation, and articulate to ourselves precisely what we need and expect from our leaders. Establish ground rules and deal-breakers and stick to the criteria that we set for ourselves. And determine the policies we want, instead of passively accepting miles of box drains and hampers.

For all these reasons, I am hoping that 2015 is the year the people of Trinidad and Tobago embrace their role as citizens, and begin voting for themselves.

Rhoda Bharath is a teacher, writer and researcher in Culture.

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