Combating ‘safe-seat syndrome’


As silly season enters full swing, the usual election ploys come into view. Last weekend treated me to politicians walking in my neighbourhood, trying to convince me how much I mean to them. The same politicians who I probably will not see for another five years when, all of a sudden, I become the apple of their eye once again.

I am sure this is not a unique experience to me; in fact, I am willing to bet the majority of electors in Trinidad and Tobago are treated to this same level of disingenuousness from people who profess to lead. I know this because I live in a traditional ‘safe seat’, much like the vast majority of Trinbagonians.

Out of the 41 seats that are contested, the reality is that only about four or five are truly competitive, leaving the rest of seats more or less inconsequential. The major parties know this.

I cannot speak for those residing in the marginals as I have only ever lived in a safe seat, so the rest of my piece speaks of this ‘safe-seat syndrome’.

Safe seats are normally used by the political parties to place candidates they deem to have significant political value -ie, they are important to the party. Their ability to be an effective representative for you, humble voter, is irrelevant.

They know the candidates are a shoo-in to become a Member of Parliament, so this allows those earmarked for important ministries or those being groomed for a political future to be placed in an area where this is secure. This affords ‘MP Safe Seat’ two very convenient excuses, whether they win or lose, in order to combat their inevitable non-performance as an MP post-election day.

If they do manage to make it to government, the excuse is, ‘Well, I am a government minister now, so I have to see about government matters and, therefore, I will only have time for you in another five years when I am seeking your vote again.’

The other excuse of convenience when they form the opposition is, ‘Well, we are not in power, so there is only so much I can do, and my hands are tied.’

So, then, why even vote?

Safe seats are not a stepping stone for your political future, dear Mr or Ms Safe Seat MP. You have an obligation to those who voted for you to represent them. Safe seats are some of the most under-represented and underdeveloped parts of the entire country.

This is symptomatic of the perver sion of democracy we have in T&T where political candidates choose their voters, not the other way around. Non-performing MPs can occupy seats of power for decades on end, without so much as stepping foot into their constituencies, with the exception of the mandatory music truck and tassa drive-by leading up to the general election. This is not enough.

The system where representatives do not have to answer to their voters gives rise to political crapaudism where voters will inevitably choose party over candidate. This allows political analysts to sit on panel shows on election night and use the term ‘tribal politics’, cycle after cycle, as if it is some sort of novel insight.

Any political party actually interested in improving the lives of those it represents would commit to a system of political primaries where prospective and incumbent MPs must face their voters in order to be afforded the privilege of contesting polls on their behalf in upcoming elections.

The system where political party executives screen and choose candidates is ineffective and downright stupid. This only serves to protect the political party darlings, despite their ineffectiveness as representatives.

To represent a constituency is a privilege, not a right, and it is time we start acting like it. While not the perfect system, political primaries help to combat safe-seat syndrome, and will maybe knock some arrogant members of Parliament down a peg or two.

The power belongs to the people, not to the political parties. Democracy only works when the will of the people is heard and carried out.

Musician John Kay once said, ‘The people who own the country ought to govern it.’ We should remember who owns the country.

Attish Kanhai
Caroni Central