Trinidad’s governance politics

After almost two years after general elections in May 2010, the coalition which formed the government under the name of the Peoples Partnership (PP) seems unable to sustain the kind of stability that would assure supporters and the population as a whole, that they are capable of effectively governing the country. In its relatively early period, the government seemed plagued by controversy about its mode of selection of heads of some significant institutions including, for example, the Police Force, its main security institution and Caribbean Airlines (CAL).

Then it became apparent that at the very top of the system, there has seemed to be a loss of confidence on the part of the Prime Minister and some of her colleagues in the Chairman of the United National Congress component of the PP, Jack Warner, following revelations about his activities in FIFA. And in the next largest component, the Congress of the People (COP), its leader and Minister of Finance of the government, Dr Winston Dookeran seemed to have been induced to resign his position, in the face of a feeling in the party that he was not being energetic enough in sustaining its profile and vibrancy.

No doubt Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar was hoping that the recent annual conference of the UNC, including leadership elections, would have been an opportunity for a show of unity and self-confidence. But first, a faction of the UNC itself including Nicola Panday, the daughter of former leader, intervened in the electoral process, claiming a breach or non-observance of the rules, and casting a cloud on its legitimacy. Secondly the smoothness of the process has been marred by an incident involving the movement of a leading member of the COP, the Mayor of San Fernando, Marlene Coudray, to the UNC and her successful election as a Deputy Leader of that party, a move described by the new COP leader Prakash Ramadar, as “poaching.” And to add fuel to the fire this very incident has now upset the internal unity of the COP with open disputes among its own leadership, some supporting Coudray and others, including the party leader himself, volubly against and threatening to leave, the PP.

Mr Jack Warner, whom many felt might have been on a downward slide out of the government after the FIFA revelations, was re-elected Chairman of the UNC by an overwhelming majority, allowing suggestions that his much vaunted political impregnability has remained untouched, and that party supporters have not approved of the Prime Minister’s apparent slighting of him in recent times. Commentators have suggested, however, that what may be more important is that, in spite of a decisive defeat of the Panday faction in the elections, what was noticeable was the very low poll that occurred, indicating a virtual boycott by a large number of traditional UNC supporters. And their staying away is being taken as a reproach against the way in which things are being run both at the party and governance level, taking into account also the virtual split in the COP.

As time has gone on, however, it must be apparent to the Prime Minister that internal party and government squabbles may be the least of her troubles as far as the governance of the country as a whole is concerned. Indeed some commentators argue that it should not be unexpected that with the removal of the strong hand of Basdeo Panday, there should be some instability as younger contenders seek to advance their status and public popularity. And there is some sentiment that Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s obvious attempt in recent months to keep her distance from Jack Warner may have been an error , given the obvious organizational skills that he has displayed in the run-up to the last election, and in his ministry.

It is also obvious, however, that the degree of instability in the PP coalition as a party grouping, is increasingly mirrored by a perception of a government that has not yet found its feet in the management of the country’s affairs. This appears to apply in particular to the government’s approach to the management of particular institutions considered crucial to the country’s stability and progress. First there has been more and more concern about the government’s inability to conclude the staffing of certain statutory institutions.

Secondly even where this has been done, some of these institutions have been wracked by instability, to take the Integrity Commission and the Police Services Commission as examples. The former experienced the abrupt resignation of its Chairman over problems that remain, to the extent that its new Chairman, the distinguished publisher, Mr Ken Gordon, has now found himself under challenge, with a tribunal being set up by government to investigate the conduct of the Deputy Chairperson.

In the case of the Police Services Commission, that institution, led by the well-recognised academic and criminologist Dr Ramesh Deosaran, is under severe challenge by both the recently appointed Chief of Police and his Deputy, the Commission having given them virtually below passing grades for the conduct of their offices. And this latter situation is made even graver by the fact that both of these officers were foreigners recruited on the basis that no suitable Trinidadian could be found to do those jobs.

The leadership of the longstanding Caribbean Airlines (BWIA), remodelled, including the absorption of Air Jamaica, by the previous government, has itself also been a focus of controversy both in regard to policy and to disputes focused on the chairmanship of the company itself. And in a matter that flows over into Caricom affairs, the security institutions of the country have been shaken by allegations of favouritism in respect of professional appointments.

These various situations may seem fertile ground for the opposition People‘s National Movement to regain its footing in the electoral game. But this appears to be hardly the case. It does not seem that its new leader, Dr Keith Rowley, has himself found his footing, to the extent that he has seemed, since his election to be concerned about factions in the party still loyal to former leader Patrick Manning with whom he had an uneasy relationship for much the last PNM government’s tenure. This was not helped by Manning’s persistence as a member of parliament and his momentary interventions, a situation, however, now eased by the former Prime Minister’s current illness. A recent censure motion initiated by the PNM does not seem to have really advanced the PNM’s standing, the ensuing debate having been characterized by mutual recriminations.

It is not unlikely that Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar may feel that it is early days yet, and that time is needed to mould not only a previously untried experiment in coalition government, but also the large number of new parliamentarians involved in governance for the first time. And she must be hoping for the apparent continued inability of the PNM to make any real ground in the minds of the electorate as yet.

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