Over the last few weeks Trinidad & Tobago has been at fever pitch, with campaigning for local government elections, now over, and a parliamentary bye-election due on November 4th in the constituency of Barataria. The vacancy in Barataria has itself been a source of high interest as the sitting member, former High Court judge Herbert Volney, himself a member of the governing party, was deprived of his seat by the Speaker of the House, under the rules of the parliament itself.
As probably now well known, the centre of interest in the local government elections was a first run by Jack Warner and his Independent Labour Party (ILP). As is well known, Warner has been the main Caribbean personality, over many years, on the FIFA and CONCACAF executives, and he is leading his own formation after his departure from the United National Congress (UNC)-People’s Partnership (PP) arrangement that decisively defeated the People’s National Movement led by Patrick Manning during the last general elections.
But in the local government elections, it was the People’s National Movement, now led by Dr Keith Rowley which provided the surprise of a substantial victory over the UNC-PP, winning the majority of the boroughs or corporations (in effect the City Councils) including Port of Spain, San Fernando and Point Fortin, in what was a relatively high turnout, for local government elections, of 43-5% of the electorate. Warner’s ILP failed to make the impression that he would certainly have wanted.
Conventional opinion has been that the electorate has given the UNC-PP, and its leader Kamla Persad Bissessar, a warning of its dissatisfaction with the government’s performance that has been characterized by continuing controversy which the Prime Minister has seemed unable to quell. And further, the poll seems to have indicated that while the electorate in Chaguanas were content to support the re-election of Jack Warner after his original resignation from Parliament, it was not really prepared to give any strong indication that it is ready to defect en masse from either of the two main parties, and particularly not from the UNC-PP, to permit a new rival to enter the game.
But the electorate has certainly registered its dissatisfaction with the disorder that has characterized the functioning of the UNC-PP over the last few years. It has indicated that the PNM remains the main contender in the face of what is seen as weak leadership at the helm of the UNC-PP, and an inability of the UNC’s partner in the PP, the Congress of the People originally founded and led by Foreign Minister Winston Dookeran, to influence the UNC section of the government.
The danger in this for the governing coalition is that the Congress of the People has been perceived as the institution in the last general elections which drew alienated middle class supporters from the Manning-led PNM once the electorate was satisfied that it was part of a party which had a substantial chance of winning. But on this occasion, it seems clear that their supporters are either prepared to abstain from supporting the PP, or could well be contemplating drifting back to a PNM under Dr Rowley, apparently rid of the stigma that came to be attached to Patrick Manning.
Further, what seems at this point to be the case, is that the electorate is not yet ready to give its support to the ILP whose leader, before, during and since the local government elections has been the subject of continuing press investigations and reports about the source of what would seem to be his immense wealth which, in turn is alleged to be related to his tenure with FIFA and CONCACAF. And certainly, the investigation and report by Barbadian Chief Justice David Simmons has not helped.
From the perspective of the UNC-PP, the results will be seen as representing a continuing defection of supporters and general lack of confidence in the organization and government. The elections follow those in Tobago earlier this year, in which the PP made a substantial effort, utilizing the full resources of the state, but with the disappointing result that the PNM won all the seats in the House of Assembly.
What the PP will, of course, be relieved about, is that Jack Warner’s ILP has not made much of a dent, and they will be hoping for the same tendency to prevail in the forthcoming bye-election. Prime Minister Persad Bissessar will be aware that there are two more years to go before general elections must necessarily be held, and that a continuing reasonable performance of the economy, combined with a reversal of the internal instability that has characterized the government, will give sufficient time for her government and party to regain the electorate’s confidence.
But up to now, the Prime Minister has not shown that she is capable of stabilizing relations within the government itself, given her continuing appointment and reappointment of personnel as Ministers. In addition, she will have to take account of what appears to be the declining confidence of the electorate in the Congress of the People, indications from the local government elections suggesting that they may well be unable to present a viable slate to balance those nominated by the UNC, for the next general elections.
Dr Rowley will certainly be pleased with the performance of the PNM. There have been rumblings from within the party that his style of leadership was not likely to be persuasive to the electorate, and specifically to draw those members of the middle class who had, in the last general elections, seemed to find a satisfactory home in the COP. The PNM’s decisive victory seems likely to still many of the opposing voices, and provide him with a greater confidence from party supporters and the general electorate than had recently seemed to be the case.
In Caricom circles, a concern will be whether Prime Minister Persad Bissessar, as current Chairperson of the Bureau of Heads, will be disposed to give her time to this task. Some observers have been surprised at her silence on the issue of the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court, on persons of Haitian descent.