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Caribbean Islands

The Post-Williams Era, 1981-86

After Williams's death, the PNM appointed Chambers to succeed him as prime minister and as party leader in the 1981 elections. Chambers had entered PNM politics in 1966 and had served the government as head of several ministries in succeeding years. One of the main factors in Chambers's selection was that, as a black Trinidadian, he was more acceptable as prime minister than two more senior East Indian PNM ministers, Kamaluddin Mohammed and Errol Mahabir, both of whom remained in Chambers's cabinet.

The 1981 election marked the appearance of a new political party, the Organization for National Reconstruction (ONR). The ONR, led by former PNM prime minister Hudson-Phillips, attacked government inefficiency and called for a rollback of "massive state capitalism." The party attempted to appeal to a cross section of voters, including black and East Indian workers as well as all groups in the middle class. In addition, three opposition parties-- the ULF, the DAC, and Tapia House (a reformist party of intellectuals and the middle class)--attempted to form an electoral coalition appropriately termed the Alliance. The coalition fragmented over ethnic divisions, however.

Chambers campaigned on the PNM party record, pointing with pride to twenty-five years of accomplishments in education, housing, and culture and to the prosperous economy. Although only 30 percent of the registered voters voted for the PNM, the party once again won, getting over half the vote and taking two seats from the ULF to win a total of twenty-six out of the thirty-six seats in the House of Representatives. The ULF lost ground, receiving only 15 percent of the vote and retaining only eight of its ten seats; the DAC kept its two Tobagonian seats. Because of the winner-take-all rule, neither the ONR nor the Alliance won any seats despite the fact that the ONR received nearly a quarter of the popular vote. Observers attributed the PNM victory in 1981 to healthy economic conditions, poor organization by the opposition, and a fear of unknown and untried parties.

Chambers's five-year rule as prime minister was plagued by economic and political problems (see Role of Government, this ch.). He had ridden in on a wave of prosperity but was defeated five years later by an economic downturn. Oil prices fell in 1982 and 1983, and the oil industry, faced with lower revenues, forced concessions from the OWTU. Oil layoffs increased unemployment, and the 1982 sugar crop was below target level, compounding the problem. The government ran a deficit in 1982 for the first time in many years. During the oil boom, the PNM government had subsidized many consumer items, especially food and transport. Chambers reduced these subsidies, resulting in significant increases in food and transport prices.

Chambers changed many controversial government-to-government arrangements under which Williams had invited foreign governments to engage in development projects using their own companies. The foreign contractors had had frequent cost overruns and had angered local producers by sometimes refusing to work with local materials and local personnel. Chambers was also faced with the aircraft purchase and racetrack complex corruption scandals involving officials of Williams's government.

Hoping to reduce imports, the government instituted a system of import licensing in November 1983. This caused much criticism from other Caricom members because Trinidad and Tobago absorbed half of the intraregional trade (see External Sector, this ch.). Despite these efforts, foreign reserves continued to dwindle.

By the time of the 1983 municipal elections, PNM support had seriously eroded. With an eye on the elections, Chambers raised the salaries of 52,000 public workers, thereby increasing government expenditure by 76 percent. Despite this action, the ONR and the Alliance joined forces to win a total of 66 of the 120 municipal seats, the first opposition victory since 1958. The PNM also lost disastrously in the 1984 elections for the Tobago House of Assembly. That contest, which became a personal clash between Robinson and Chambers, resulted in the DAC's winning eleven out of fifteen seats.

The PNM was under heavy criticism by the time parliamentary elections were called for December 15, 1986. The opposition coalesced in the NAR, formed earlier in the year. The four parties comprising the NAR included the three that had formed the Alliance in 1981--the ULF, the DAC, and Tapia House--and the ONR. These four included a wide spectrum of Trinidadian political views: the ULF, headed by Basdeo Panday, president of the ATSE/FWTU, represented the indigenous working class and was mainly East Indian and left of center; Robinson's DAC primarily represented Tobagonian interests; Tapia House was a small intellectual party under the leadership of Lloyd Best; and the ONR, led by Hudson-Phillips, was largely middle class and right of center. Robinson was chosen head of the NAR, and Hudson-Phillips and Panday became deputy leaders.

Campaigning under the slogan "one love," the NAR issued a broad appeal to all ethnic groups. Robinson cited details of government corruption that the PNM was not able to dispel. Surprisingly, in response to a question at a political rally about corruption, a PNM candidate replied, "we are all thieves." Robinson promised to name an Integrity Commission, as provided by the Constitution, and to create a Register of Gifts to keep track of gifts to cabinet ministers. He also outlined a massive campaign to improve employment and promised to publish a report on drugs that had been suppressed by the government (see National Security, this ch.). Deputy leader Panday said that a NAR government would concentrate on divestment of some state enterprises.

The 1986 election was remarkable, for both voter participation and results. In the highest voter turnout (63 percent) in twenty years, the NAR captured 67 percent of the vote and won a stunning 33 out of the 36 seats in the House of Representatives. Most of the NAR seats were won by large margins, even in districts where the PNM candidates were cabinet ministers. Chambers was swept out of office with the tide. Despite losing almost all of its seats, the PNM, according to subsequent analysis of the election, retained almost half the votes of the black community. Although middle- and upper-middle-class blacks voted for the NAR, less affluent blacks stayed loyal to the PNM. Much of the NAR strength came from East Indian votes. Patrick Manning, one the three representatives who had survived the 1986 elections, was chosen to head the PNM.

Data as of November 1987

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