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Meighoo: Racial Rivalry Does Not Define T&T Politics

This has become so commonly repeated that most people have wrongly taken it as a fact.

However, a look at hard data shows that this is simply not true, and unable to predict our political behavior.

I am not saying that there is no ethnic rivalry and no ethnic tension. Racism exists in our politics, and so does discrimination.

What I am saying is that this rivalry, tension, racism and discrimination do not define our politics solely.

Believing this seriously distorts our perspective. Our politics is far more complicated.

While ethnicity plays an important role in our politics, it also co-exists with other drivers of politics such as region, ideology, class, religion, policy issues and perceptions of corruption.

As we will see, other factors very often override ethnic concerns. Ethnic rivalry between Africans and Indians does not define TT, nor our politics.

Major events in our political history

Let us start by taking a look at some of the major events in our political history:

1. The Black Power Movement of 1970: this was a major watershed movement of young people of African descent, opposed to the PNM’s neo-colonialist ideology, proclaiming “Africans and Indians Unite!”

It was suppressed by the African-led PNM government. The NUFF guerrilla movement was against the PNM government, not against Indians.

2. The coming to power of the NAR in 1986: The Afro-Tobagonian DAC and Afro-Trinidadian-led ONR and Tapia parties joined with the ULF to form the NAR and defeat the PNM.

This was a major historical event, putting the PNM out of power after 30 continuous years. Africans did not unite to keep the Indians out.

3. The 1990 attempted coup: The Afro-Islamic Jamaat al-Muslimeen overthrew the Afro-Tobagonian prime minister and requested that the Hindu, Indo-Trinidadian Winston Dookeran, led the proposed government of national unity.

This also was a major, unprecedented, watershed political event in our history.

4. The formation of the UNC-NAR government in 1995: the Afro-Tobagonian NAR joined with the UNC and not the PNM to form the government.

This was also a watershed moment, making an Indo-Trinidadian – Basdeo Panday – prime minister for the first time. Once again, the Africans did not unite to keep the Indians out of power.

5. The formation of the People’s Partnership in 2010: the Afro-Tobagonian TOP, and Afro-Trinidadian-led NJAC and MSJ joined with the UNC and COP to defeat the PNM. This major moment saw the first female prime minister in our history, of Indian descent. Africans did not unite to keep the Indians out.

These events go precisely against what the “African vs Indian” model would predict. Importantly, these aren’t minor events, but the major turning points of our history. Clearly, the “African vs Indian” model of “tribal politics” does not predict our political dynamics and development.

Demography, tradition and safe seats

This is not to say that ethnicity does not play in a part in politics. The PNM does have a core of seats in African-majority areas, and the UNC also has a core of seats in Indian-majority areas. Also, racism does exist.

However, this must not be over-interpreted, to the exclusion of all else.

Everywhere in the world where there are stable political parties, each party has safe seats that share demographic characteristics. There is always a correlation between demography and voting. Very often, people simply vote who their parents vote for, or who their friends and/or social circle votes for.

In the US, the Democrats count on urban voters, Hispanics, African-Americans and postgraduates, while the Republicans count on rural voters, Protestants and white voters without college degrees (

Each party has safe seats, and there are also marginal seats.

In the UK, Labour used to get over half its votes from manual labourers and the Conservatives used to get 70 per cent of their votes from people who owned their own homes. Historically, the Conservatives have not done well among black, Asian and minority ethnic voters, or among Muslim, Catholic or non-religious voters. (

Here, too, each party has a core of safe seats which can be demographically defined, while there are also marginal seats. It is a common pattern throughout the world.

No ‘ethnic politics’ but some ‘ethnic mobilisation’

Ethnicity and demography become toxic for politics, however, when they are part of general civil strife, which could lead to civil war, coups and/or separatist movements.

There are common triggers of ethnic rioting, for instance, which can test how deep ethnic tensions run in a given society. These include election results where the governing party loses but does not wish to leave office; court judgments on controversial ethnic issues; police or other state killings that appear to target an ethnic group; coups, revolutions and other instances where law and order break down.

In societies with significant racial and ethnic divisions, rivalries and tensions, these triggers result in riots and violence between ethnic groups.

TT has experienced most of these trigger points: a change of government after 30 years in power, a new prime minister from a different ethnic group coming to power, a coup where looting was widespread and no functioning police or government was present, a revolutionary Black Power situation, an election deadlock between the two parties and no constitutional remedy.

At no time did these events trigger African-Indian violence. This is not the case in countries like Fiji, Nigeria, Cyprus, Spain, Burundi, Indonesia, Malaysia, Azerbaijan, Serbia, and elsewhere.

Ethnic violence has never been a real danger in TT historically. Ethnic mobilisation in TT is mainly about receiving more state resources and combating a feeling of exclusion.

There do exist political actors who are highly race-conscious and seek racial advantage. This is not publicly acceptable here, however, unlike in other countries.

Additionally, individual and group voting here is also highly opportunistic. Many “undecided” voters are actually “party-in-power” supporters. They do not base their vote on ideology, policy, or ethnic loyalty. Their voting is based on who they think will win, and they want to be on the winning side. Indeed, during elections, they do not ask, “Which party do you think has the best policies?” but rather, “Who you think will win?”

Ethnicity more complicated: Nine tribes

Notably, ethnicity in TT is far more complex than merely “African” vs “Indian.” Lloyd Best’s ethnic analysis, in fact, does have predictive value.

His analysis is as follows: The “Africans” in Trinidad are really three groups with different voting behaviours: Afro-Saxons, Butlerites (unionists), and Garveyites (grounded in black consciousness).

Then you have the Tobagonians, who are African, but have separate political loyalties.

The “Indians.” according to this model, are also three groups: Hindus, Presbyterians/Christians, and Muslims. These also have differing political loyalties.

Then we have the “French Creoles” which comprise all the “white” and off-white groups, inclusive of the Chinese and Arabs, which also behave as a political bloc.

Finally, there is a large tribe of “nowherians” who don’t easily fall into any group because of long periods of education abroad or residence, mixed marriages, etc.

Our political history can be explained by the shifting of these nine groups. For example, in 1961, the PNM forged a coalition of Afro-Saxons, Presbyterians, Muslims, Nowherians, Butlerites, Garveyites, French Creoles, and Tobagonians.

However, in 1986, the PNM only retained the loyalty of Afro-Saxons, Presbyterians, and Muslims. Over time, they lost the Butlerites, Garveyites, French Creoles, Tobagonians, and Nowherians, who eventually coalesced with the Hindus, as the ULF, DAC, ONR and Tapia joined to form the NAR.

Similarly, in 2010, the five-party People’s Partnership brought together many of these same groups in the UNC, NJAC, TOP, MSJ and COP against the PNM.

Smaller parties disdainful and insult the majority

In the current situation is the complex scenario of TT, many of the smaller parties represent some of the smaller groups.

Unfortunately, too many of them are disdainful and disrespectful of the majority of Trinidadians and Tobagonians, calling them “tribal,” and implying that the majority are mindless and unthinking. In contrast, they characterise themselves and their supporters as “intelligent” and “patriotic” or “nationalistic.” They do not acknowledge that they are also “tribal,” just with a different tribe.

The power of these smaller parties has waned significantly from the 1980s and 1990s. In 2020, the 21 smaller parties and independents that contested the election did not get even five per cent of the national vote. In 2015, the 20 smaller parties and independents were also wiped out.

In reality, the PNM and UNC have built coalitions incorporating the majority of groups of TT. The country has settled into a two-party system which goes far beyond “tribalism.” Mature political engagement requires that we act practically, to bring about the change we wish to see, both within the existing parties and also in the society as a whole.

Dr Kirk Meighoo is the public relations officer of the United National Congress

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