Friday 17 August 2012

The Mayoral Election at Port of Spain

by Jean de Boissière

First published in 1937 in Boissière's book "Trinidad - Land of the Rising Inflection".

Before eight in the morning, the meager two benches provided for the public were filled with people to witness the election of a Mayor for Port of Spain. They were mostly women, all well over forty and more like lazy housewives, come for a morning's entertainment than a group politically conscious females. The men had the beaten, defeated look of most British West Indian workers, who after a lifetime of toil under the most grueling conditions grasp at whatever outlet offered the remains of their emotions
At nine, the Mayor took the chair and started what the public had believed would be an historical occasion. The first thing on the agenda was the swearing-in of the newly elected councillors. There were five of them. Two were former councillors of the party machine that kept the present Mayor in power. One was a new addition to that machine, and the other two were the new, trade union-supported councillors, whose votes were supposed to give the necessary majority to the anti-Mayor group.
As the councillors rose to take the oath, a very striking picture formed itself. In the center was an enormous baize-covered oval table: around it stood the councillors, aldermen and Mayor. Behind them a conglomeration of the dispossessed of all classes of Port of Spain stood pressing against the wall formed by the backs of the city fathers. The vast expense of table obviously stood for the private property rights of Port of Spain. The solid wall of capitalist-politicians protected the table from any encroachment by the assorted rabble at their backs.
The swearing over, the Mayor, who had climbed to political power by representing himself as the spokesman of the dispossessed, congratulated the newly-elected councillors in a speech that was notable only for an intimation to one of two trade union councillors, a barrister, of possible patronage, when he reminded him that despite the sinister reputation of lawyers in the community, the council very often found use for them. His empty praise, threats and promises delivered, he proceeded to the re-election of himself as Mayor of the city of Port of Spain.
The system of election theoretically was a process of the elimination of possible candidates until a division of the house was called to decide on the final two candidates. In practise, the chairman absolutely controlled the whole process of elimination by presuming to be the sole power for interpreting the ambiguous rules of procedure. Someone would propose a candidate and another an opponent. By a showing of hands they would select the substantiative candidate. They would be nine for McCarthy and six for Ambard, the rest abstaining. A little later in the proceedings someone would propose Cabral to oppose McCarthy who had remained the substantiative candidate. At the showing of hands there were seven for Cabral and six for McCarthy.
It did not suit the Mayor's party to have McCarthy eliminated at that particular stage with a possible build-up of Cabral as the eventual opponent. Whether or not that had anything to do with the apparent miscount by many of the councillors present could not be clear to the onlooker, but there was a great deal of confusion and the Mayor called for another showing of hands. This time it was six-six. According to previous procedures this meant that the substantiative candidate was eliminated and Cabral take his place. The Mayor immediately ruled that as McCarthv had nine votes in a previous contest against another opponent, in spite of the fact that every individual elimination contest left the right to abstain or change their candidate to the councillors, he still was the substantiative candidate.
Many councillors rose in protest at this high-handed interpretation of procedure by the Mayor. The councillors at Port of Spain hurled abuse at one anothers' head with vehemence that delighted the idle women and job-seeking men in the crowd, who understood naught of the politics of their city, but were delighted at being entertained in the manner they were accustomed to. The Mayor sat smiling at his well-managed circus that was behaving exactly as he wished it to: his rabble were being amused, and the councillors themselves were losing themselves and their dignity in a mirage that completely obscured the real issues at stake.
He called for yet another showing of hands. Some protested. He ignored them, and at the showing someone forgot who he had held up his hand for the first, and second times, and the result was six for Cabral and seven for McCarthy. The Mayor had got it as he wished, even if he had to trample the dignity of the civil body of Port of Spain in the gutter to do so.
Before any one councillor could catch his breath to give voice to a coherent protest, one of the Mayor's party proposed the Mayor as a candidate. It was now necessary for the Mayor to leave the chair. Two councillors of the opposing camp proposed a new chairman and were seconded. The Mayor announced the one that suited him as the new chairman, and ignored the other proposal as if it had never been made. Pandemonium let loose for the second time. The historic meeting went on without a chairman at all for fully fifteen minutes, while the opposition struggled for a hearing. In the meantime, three of the Mayor's party shrieked at one another from opposite side of the table about the interpretation of this procedure. It meant little, except as a very effective way of keeping the opposition from expressing itself. For even the most naive onlooker could see by now that the man who sat in the chair elected who he wanted as Mayor. Johnston made an offer to take the chair and appealed to the councillors to keep his right to sit there. But the opposition thoroughly rankled refused to support him. This also meant little, because if he was not entitled to it, neither was the candidate of the opposition, and the only alternative was the Mayor's henchman and deputy Pujadas. He took the chair.
The newly elected supporter of the Mayor rose to make a speech on the candidate he was voting for. He spoke in the manner of a school teacher whose self-taught diction is at best in the backroom of a rumshop. His string of elaborated catchwords lasted over 10 minutes. The chairman did not intervene while the opposition waited patiently.
There was another showing of hands at the conclusion of this boring interlude. Again the chairman seemed incapable of simply counting the number of raised hands. They bawled and screamed while one of the opposition leaders, Gomes, literally bursting with anger at the whole disgraceful affair, threatened to take the matter of the abuse of procedure to court at his own expense. The Mayor edged nearer to him and shrieked that if Gomes hit him, he would sock him on the jaw. With this, several of the Mayor's adherents of the bruiser type aggressively thrust themselves close to the Mayor and stood in a threatening attitude. This bit of gangster intimidation may have been the cause of the sudden subsidence of a storm that had broken several ink pots and at one point threatened to break up the meeting.
Calm again, Councillor Gomes rose to support his candidate against the Mayor. He began logically and clearly to deal with the years of administration or mal-administration. He spoke with a fine clear style, too fine, for the chairman ruled that he must not make a speech or at most not talk for more than five minutes. Gomes referred to the long speech of the schoolmaster. The chairman ignored him. Gomes sat down with an assured resignation.
A decision was called for and taken. Still nobody could count the hands correctly. So each name was put down and stated as candidate. One by one the councillors gave their vote until they came to Sinanan, the newly-elected, who had returned through the instrumentality of the trade unions. For weeks he had been sitting in the councils of the anti-Mayor opposition. Without a trace of embarrassment he voted against the people who had put him there and whose trust he had betrayed by sitting in on their plan of campaign. It gave the final disgraceful note to the whole sordid affair.
His vote gave the Mayor the chair for another year. It should not have been so as according to the procedure followed up to then. The opposition could have rallied their forces and proposed another candidate to oppose the Mayor who was only the substantiative candidate. But the chairman and the mob conspired to declare the new Mayor. The wildly enthusiastic populace, who had shown what mass action can do, danced up the street to the Mayor's office where they would celebrate the triumph of capitalist re-action with the few pence spared to buy rum. Thus ended a scene that would have outraged any self-respecting citizen of Port of Spain. But then there was very little room for such people in the council chamber on the morning the Mayor was elected.

No comments: