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Monitoring the re-election campaign

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A recent Trinidad Guardian report estimated that, over a six-day period, the People’s Partnership had outspent the PNM in traditional media advertising by six to one. Of the estimated $5 million in advertising expenditure, the PP was responsible for $4.3 million, the PNM a meager $700,000. In terms of actual numbers, the PP had placed over 100 newspaper advertisements, while the PNM had placed a paltry 17. That is quite an outrageous disparity. 

Political analysts Winford James and Maukesh Basdeo both thought that the PP’s spending was on the high side, but nevertheless would not charaterise it as unusual given that the party in power normally has greater access to campaign finance. Yes, but to the tune of six to one?

Mr Basdeo’s explanation for the PP’s disproportionate spending was rather anodyne. It was either, the tautological, that the PP was able to raise more funds or, the circular, that financiers are “more comfortable supporting the party in power.” 

Mr James was far less circumspect. One explanation for the PP’s veritable cornucopia is the contributions undoubtedly made by contractors in receipt of state largesse. According to Mr James, the “normal contributions of members” could not by itself account for the PP’s war chest bursting at its seams. “The level of spending is just too high for that to be so.” 

I share Mr James’ misgivings. The share magnitude of the assumed contributions raises the concern that something sinister is at play, that in fact taxpayers money has been indirectly funneled from the state’s coffers, through state contractors, and back into the PP’s political war chest. 

I find it disappointing that the Third Force, which has made campaign finance reform one of its bellwethers of political support, has unconditionally endorsed the PP without even asking where its campaign contributions are coming from, and in what amounts. 

Mr James also averted to the phenomenon of what he called “the comingling of state and party funds during election periods.” This occurs when government ministries use state funds to advertise the achievements of the outgoing government, a transparent ploy which doubles as a not so subtle invitation to return the authors of such alleged successes to power. 

Mr James thinks that, in this regard, there is a “blurring” of the line separating propriety from notoriety. That may be so in some instances and in a different context. For my part, I have no doubt that the line has been crossed time and again. 

An incumbent party is unquestionably entitled to boast about its accomplishments, or at the very least to defend its record from attack by those seeking to unseat it. It is therefore clearly unobjectionable for the Minister of Housing to proudly trumpet the delivery of so many housing units to members of the public. 

Where the line may have been crossed, however, is if, as is suspected, the distribution of much needed housing was deliberately delayed to coincide with the election season, or, which is more likely, the actual timing of the roll-out of 100 units every week right up to the eve of the election was engineered as an election gimmick. 

It is bad enough that the Minster’s control over the timing of the delivery of public housing is put at the disposal of his political party’s campaign strategy, it is even worse that each event is accompanied by an advertisement, paid for out of public funds, replete with photographs of the smiling minister “bringing the dreams of a nation closer to home.” One such advertisement appeared in the Guardian on August 21 concerning a roll-out which occurred on August 15. And just in case you might have thought that this was an ordinary, if ill-timed notification of a government event, well how do you explain the repeat of the same advertisement two days later other than as a crass attempt at political advertisement? 

As it happened, on August 21 there also appeared a two-page advertisement heralding the opening of the Children’s Hospital in Couva. This is an important milestone by any measure and one which was deserving of public notification, no matter when it occurred. It is one of the Prime Minister’s signature projects and it was therefore not in the least bothersome that the advertisement contained obviously staged photographs of her at the official opening ceremony. But the temptation to misuse a national event for narrow partisan gain was obviously too much for the copywriter who could not resist the closing refrain: “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

And if you were in any doubt as to whether all of this is not part of a coordinated plan, it should be clear that from now until you cast your vote, we will be bombarded on a daily basis with similar, thinly disguised partisan political advertisements, all financed with hard-earned taxpayers money. Thus, on August 22 and 23, the Ministry of Tertiary Education placed full page ads about the placement of graduates of the OJT Programme; on August 23 and 25, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed us that T&T had applied to host the Arms Trade Treaty Secretariat, an application which had been made since July 2013; on August 26, again apropos of nothing in particular, the Ministry of Local Government reminded us that for the last five years it had been faithful to the Peoples Partnership’s 2010 manifesto on local government; and on August 27 (the date this column is being written), the Ministry of Education extolled the Prime Minister’s vision for education and the efforts it had made to fulfill her mandate. The only thing missing is the clarion call: VOTE PP.

Any future campaign finance reform legislation must address the misuse of public funds to finance the re-election campaign of an incumbent government.


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