Sunday, April 17, 2011

Political parties: Gangs in disguise?

By Oliver Mills

Over the years, political parties in the Caribbean have been much criticised for lack of focus and action on the pressing issues of society, for not being sensitive to the wider needs of the most vulnerable in Caribbean society, not taking bold and aggressive measures to deal with the inequalities in Caribbean society, and for not seriously attempting to transform the structure and function of the various institutions of government to enable them to deliver on the many promises they make.

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada and an MA from the University of London. He has published numerous articles in human resource development and management, as well as chapters in five books on education and human resource management and has presented professional papers in education at Oxford University in the UK and at Rand Africaans University in South AfricaFurthermore, political parties in the Caribbean have been seen as elite organisations, which continuously co-opt aspiring and promising individuals into their ranks, exposing them to the benefits of office, and the opportunities connected with it, and so perpetuate the status quo.

In a recent article published in one of the leading Caribbean papers, the writer gives a new twist to the description of political parties, categorising them as gangs, in reference to the way these parties conduct politics in his country. He speaks of the exploitation of his country by the two major political parties for their own benefit, and says that most of the 40,000 or so fatalities since 1970 were because of the criminality attached to, and fomented by these parties. The writer further describes these political parties as having a gangster character.

The question is, are political parties really gangs in disguise? But what really is a gang? A gang usually comprises a leader, and committed followers, with a goal or mission. Their activities are usually geared to meeting their own needs at the expense of the wider society. Gangs prey on the wider society, and compete with each other for turf. Many of them also have symbols which identify their members.

Gangs also have a code of conduct, and if there are any infractions, severe punishment could be meted out to the guilty. They also seek to recruit others to their cause, particularly among the young, and disaffected, looking for an identity, and to be associated with something bigger than themselves. Members of gangs often say that the reason they join is because they feel appreciated and wanted, as well as protected. In many instances as well, before a person becomes a gang member, he or she has to undertake certain acts, testifying to their commitment.

But do political parties fit into this paradigm, or scenario? Indeed, political parties have a leader with committed followers, who are often fanatical to the point of seeing anyone who does not share their political views as the enemy, and assaults, sometimes fatal, are perpetrated against opponents, which is also what a gang does. Parties also have goals and a mission just as gangs do, and their activities are directed at meeting their own needs and, as they often state, those of the country as well. Gangs have no consideration for the needs of the wider society. But many people say that the personal needs of the political party are often disguised as the needs of the country. However, it is often said that gangs also have a constituency, which they look after economically.

Like gangs, political parties also compete for turf and, in some Caribbean countries, one section of a village, or even a street is controlled by one or the other party, and neither party’s supporters can cross this line. Some political parties, like gangs have also set up garrisons, in which their staunch supporters live, and the supporters of the opposite party dare not enter the zone controlled by one or the other party.

Like gangs, political parties also have symbols that represent their particular stances or beliefs. In one Caribbean country, the symbol for one party is the bell, which for them suggests freedom, while the other party has the shell, which represents the most important industry, or element of the economy. The shell also portrays strength and endurance. Other parties in other Caribbean countries use a particular colour, while in a particular country, the three fingers on the left hand, going left from the middle finger, are its symbol. So both political parties and gangs have the same kind of representative icons, which depict who, and what they are.

Political parties, like gangs, also have a code of conduct that governs membership, and the conduct of its members and supporters. We have seen party members, and even ministers of government being expelled for conduct unbecoming of the party, but they are often shuffled off to another post that is not conspicuous, only to reappear in politics later. Gangs could be somewhat more ruthless though. This is why we have gang warfare in cases where one, or some members of a particular gang are suspected of having alliances with the other, or even more extreme, some gang members become fatalities, particularly if they are suspected of being police agents.

In a wider perspective, can it be said that political parties are gangs in disguise? I have just pointed out their similarities. But in a formal sense are gangs and political parties the same? One Caribbean scholar recently described his country and its political system as a gangster state. However, if we look at the origins, philosophy, and reasons why political parties have been formed, we will see that their objectives were noble. They aimed at organising the people into a cohesive force to promote progress, mobilising public opinion around the issues, seeking to create growth and development in the country, and organising the resources of the country, so that the majority receives some benefit.

Political parties also help to maintain a balance of power, and prevent dictatorship in government. If we do not like the policies of a government, they can be changed through the use of the ballot. Despite this, though, political trickery, gerrymandering and deception are often employed to maintain a particular party in office over long periods in some countries. Gang leaders are often eliminated either through internal rivalry, in street battles with other gangs, or by the forces of the state.

It could be said in one sense, then, that the activities of some political parties resemble those of a gang, while others stick to the noble purpose and philosophy from which they originated, and continue to sustain themselves.

April 16, 2011