Political change in Trinidad

Followers of political changes in the region will have been observing the battle for succession in the People’s National Movement (PNM), the party formed by Dr Eric Williams, which has only had two political leaders since the mid-1950s – Williams himself and Patrick Manning who gave up the leadership on account of ill health. Following Manning’s withdrawal, the party has been led by Dr Keith Rowley, a native of Tobago, though representing a constituency in mainland Trinidad.

In effect, the PNM has had two long-serving leaders, so over the years of its existence, the matter of leadership elections has been something of a formality for the party’s membership. But now, with Manning’s formal withdrawal from party office, an energetic campaign is now in progress, taking a form almost akin to a national election. And in consequence, the PNM is undergoing an experience almost unknown to itself, with fierce contention between the acting Leader and a contender, Penelope Beckles, herself a long-standing and senior functionary of the party.

The election process has turned out to be relatively fierce, Rowley in particular having a reputation for no-holds-barred approaches to his critics. And there would appear to be a sense among some party followers and functionaries that he is likely to move the party in new directions, away from some of the paths on which Patrick Manning led it, that are known to have been not entirely acceptable to Rowley.

The ascent of a woman as a contender for party leadership is of course no longer novel to the Trinidad & Tobago electorate, since Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s removal of Panday from the then opposition United National Congress, and her move to swiftly form a wider coalition that defeated the PNM. In that sense, Penelope Beckles has a possibly less easy path to tread than did Persad-Bissessar, for as a senior personality of the PNM she has already forged a reputation and political notoriety for herself.

Rowley comes into the leadership fight with some success behind him. He passed a first test when, in spite of a fierce campaign waged by a Peoples’ Partnership government much more united than it is today, he, along with the local PNM Tobago Assembly leader, led the PNM to a substantial victory in the local elections there. And he came through a second trial in a series of by-elections last year to the House of Representatives in which the PNM did substantially well.

In the interim, Rowley has tried hard to persuade the electorate that the People’s Partnership government has been taking the country away from what are claimed to be PNM standards of probity in public affairs, in a context in which Trinidad & Tobago with its natural gas-based wealth in particular, is differentiating itself from other Caricom states by its persistent positive levels of economic growth.

The latest revelations of insider trading in respect of a leading state financial institution, the First Citizens Bank, have also given Rowley more fuel to add to his fire of government, or government-related, corruption. And this is allowing him, in turn, to present himself to the electorate as one wishing to reintroduce new standards of public life which, he claims, the PNM has always stood for. Further, he now seeks to portray himself as having led the charge of PP misconduct in public office, while asserting that his opponent, as a senior leader of the party, has been relatively silent.

From the PNM’s perspective in national affairs, the ground appears to be favourable. First, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar, while taking praise for the relatively stable economic situation at a time when so many other Caribbean economies seem to be facing the doldrums, has had a difficult time with a series of apparently dubious acts by members of her government, which have forced her into Cabinet dismissals, or forced resignations, that give an air of instability to the ruling PP coalition. Secondly, she has seen the forced resignation from the government and the PP, of Jack Warner of CONCACAF fame, one of the main proponents of the PP’s electoral victory over the PNM.

Thirdly, these circumstances have, more often than not, been forcing the main subsidiary component of the PP, the Congress of the People (COP), to periodically appear to be distancing itself from the Prime Minister’s manner of conducting government.

But the COP itself appears to have been losing ground. It is no longer led by its virtual founder, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Winston Dookeran, and it must appear to the electorate that Mrs Persad-Bissessar is prone to react to its coalition partner’s internal criticisms with scant regard. The new leadership of the COP obviously does not have the prestige that Dookeran brought to it, and in response, the electorate would seem to have been distancing itself from the party.

It appears to be the case that regardless of which of the contending PNM personalities turns out to be leader, Mrs Persad-Bissessar will want to lead the People’s Partnership in the next election campaign on a platform of continuing prosperity and increasing foreign investment being attracted into the country. The visit of the United States Vice-President Biden to Trinidad, as the location for consultations with Caricom leaders was taken full advantage of. And her recent visit to China has been used not only for the purposes of seeking investment and trade, but also as an indication of the status of Trinidad at the international level, in the eyes of the big and powerful, at least as compared with other Caricom states.

Rowley is seeking the leadership, and intending to go into the next general elections on a campaign stressing his own experience in government, and the strength of his intellect in the tradition of Dr Eric Williams, when compared to any other contenders.

He has been painted, within the PNM itself, as too brusque and contentious in his dealings with others, both within and outside the party. And there are also suggestions that he has been unable to sufficiently appeal to the mass base of the party, the implication being that his Tobago origins inhibit him from doing this. Yet, the recent death of ANR Robinson, a native of Tobago and a former Deputy Leader of the PNM, has been reminding the electorate that there is a limit, in terms of electoral disadvantage, to issues stressing the Trinidad, versus the Tobago, origins of leaders of the country.

Whoever the victor is in the internal PNM elections, the PP will probably have little chance to rejoice, since the by-election results that the PNM has been exploiting, and which seem negative to the PP, would appear to be created by the PP forces themselves. The PP would seem to have to move to reorient itself, particularly in terms of the behaviour of some of its leading personalities, in order to come to terms with what looks likely to be a Rowley victory for the PNM’s leadership.

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