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Unity challenges for T&T's partnership Gov't

ANALYSIS

RICKEY SINGH

Sunday, April 01, 2012    

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WITHIN 24 hours of last weekend's internal elections of the United National Congress (UNC) -- the dominant party in Trinidad and Tobago's People's Partnership Government (PPG) -- the cracks of disunity were widening to the point of open threats of a likely pull-out by the coalition's second largest party, the Congress of People (COP).

During the UNC's election, the major focus was first of all, on challenges facing the popular and often controversial Works Minister Jack Warner retaining the party's chairmanship; and secondly, the targeting by COP of the mayor of San Fernando (T&T's second major city) Marlene Coudray, who defected from that party to contest, surprisingly enough, the position of deputy leader of the UNC, which she won convincingly.

Coudray had failed to secure a parliamentary seat at the 2010 general election when she ran as a candidate of the COP (then under the leadership of the economist Winston Dookeran, who subsequently gave up that post but remained in the Cabinet as finance minister under the UNC's leader, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, first woman prime minister of the country).

What has emerged as quite surprising is that the COP's leader, Prakash Ramadar, a lawyer, who succeeded Dookeran, should have made very public his threat to disturb the unity of the PPG's coalition of basically five parties.

He has threatened to lead the walk-out, primarily over Coudray's "politically indecent" switch to the UNC.

Well, though he is yet to distinguish himself in the very challenging party politics of Trinidad and Tobago -- a Caricom state with its crucial mix of race and class more so than others -- Ramadar needs to engage in some serious rethink about his leadership of the COP and, by extension, continued involvement as a constituent part of Persad-Bissessar's "partnership government" in Port-of-Spain.

For, even on the eve of a scheduled special post-Cabinet meeting on Thursday, March 29, Ramadar was being openly challenged by his COP colleague, Sports Minister Anil Roberts, for having gone public with his bitter complaints over Coudray's defection.

The results of Thursday's special meeting of the leaders of all five coalition parties that comprise the PPG, were still unknown at the time of writing this column. But even assuming Ramadar's success in pulling the COP out of the coalition, there can hardly be a crisis for Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar's PPG, which has another three years to complete its constitutional mandate.

Expected triumph

At the 2010 elections for the 41-member Parliament, the Persad-Bissessar-led coalition had trounced the then incumbent People's National Movement (PNM) by securing a landslide 29 seats, with some 20 of them going to the UNC, six to the COP, and the remaining three to smaller "partners".

Therefore, assuming a worst-case political scenario of likely defections among its four other "partners", Persad-Bissessar's UNC can still retain firm control of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, since its primary challenger for state power remains the PNM.

However, such a development seemed most unlikely at the time of writing, since differences that have surfaced among the three other coalition partners of the UNC are far removed from a break-up of the People's Partnership Government.

What seems more likely to occur is a serious post-internal elections soul-searching for the PPG's future in the context of facing up to the old challenges of race and class that have been a constant factor at national elections since political independence came at the same time as that of Jamaica's 50 years ago this coming August.

The more focused message to have emerged from last Saturday's UNC meeting was the defeat of race-oriented politics in preference for merit.

Warner and 'race'

Amid the political griping, the sound of laughter from victors and the anguished double-speak of losers, there have been come encouraging spins on the election results from Warner, and also Ralph Maraj, a former foreign minister in a People's National Movement administration.

No stranger to personal challenges -- whether in football or party politics -- Warner had kept faith with his UNC constituents for a decisive re-election as chairman of the party. And he got it -- above all odds.

At the previous party elections in January 2010, Warner was quite vigorous in helping Persad-Bissessar to decisively defeat the party's founder-leader, Basdeo Panday, who has been substantially, if not irretrievably, politically marginalised .

As his primary challenger for chairmanship, Ashvani Mahabir was licking his wounds over a humiliating defeat, while Warner was stoic in the central message he chose to convey to his supporters and, by extension, that multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Caricom nation in general.

Emerging with the single largest bloc of votes -- 12,656 (3,461 more than he secured at the January 2010 election) -- Warner pointed to what he called the "racial bogey" as he commended the maturity of voters for allowing "performance" to trounce "race".

He was emphatic in declaring, and without resort to facile race-hyphenation, that "what the results show is that the racial bogey is on its way out. Gone are the days when Indians would vote for an Indian and Africans will vote for an African. That is out. People did not look or judge me by the colour of my skin or my hair; they voted on performance, not race".

Well, it may not be quite as altruistic as underscored, but there is no doubting the fact that with racial influences very much at work in the body politic, a conscious decision had been made to give Jack his 'jacket' as a performer in the Cabinet.

Warning of ex-PNM minister

And what of the post-election 'spin' that came from Ralph Maraj, the former high profile Cabinet minister in People's National Movement administrations that were headed by Patrick Manning?

He thinks that "race will eventually lose its potency in the politics of Trinidad and Tobago. Fortified in this view, he has cited the examples of 2007 when, as he said, "tens of thousands of supporters" departed from the UNC for the "new politics of the cosmopolitan Congress of the People (COP -- then led by now Finance Minister Winston Dookeran).

Secondly, in Maraj's reasoning, in 2010 "many thousands of disillusioned traditional PNM supporters had contributed heavily to the party's huge defeat by the People's Partnership..."

As Maraj concluded on the high note: "Race clearly has not delivered to the diehard (electoral) bases of either the UNC or the PNM. Both continue to suffer in this country... and "both are ripe for revolt".

Readers should not associate this perceived "revolt" with any strategy linked to extra-parliamentary politics, but more likely a consistent crossing of traditional ethnic boundaries based on objective assessments rather than the emotional appeals of race.

Altogether, therefore, there seems to be a healthy political stirring in that Caricom member state, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary of political Independence this coming August and parades the significance of its national motto: "Together We Aspire, Together We Achieve".

WARNER... had kept faith with his UNC constituents for a decisive re-election as chairman of the party

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