Trinidad’s pre-election rumblings

With elections due by May this year, Trinidad’s People’s Partnership coalition government seems to be experiencing a certain amount of turbulence. The combination of parties encompassing the United National Congress (UNC) once led by Basdeo Panday, the Congress of the People established by Dr Winston Dookeran, now Minister of Foreign Affairs, and including the controversial, sometime FIFA executive, Jack Warner, has been suffering departures and ejections from its ranks since the general elections of May of 2010, when it defeated the People’s National Movement then led by Patrick Manning.

The coalition, as party and government under the leadership of Kamla Persad-Bissessar, seemed at first to have put the PNM to rest for some time. But it has failed to maintain its unity, with Persad-Bissessar’s UNC dominating the other factions, with even the Congress of the People seeming to be gradually forced into the background, The coalition has increasingly taken on the appearance of a UNC seeming to shed the influence of it coalition allies as elections, now due by May of this year, draw nearer and nearer.

But now it appears that the UNC itself has been losing its cohesion, as accusations of virtually illegal behaviour have been made against key individuals, and the situation has now been thrown into the political limelight with the Prime Minister’s dismissal of actors who have, over the years, seemed to be key participants in both government and party decision-making. And Mrs Persad-Bissessar will surely have been perceived as being forced into a corner, when she felt it necessary to dismiss two of her ministers who seemed to be key participants in the government’s decision-making over the last many years – the Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, a key member of the UNC, and the Minister of National Security Minister Gary Griffith of the Congress of the People.

The issues involved in their dismissal suggest an attempt to manipulate the coalition to the advantage of the UNC, and the dismissed individuals have been accused of engaging in virtually conspiratorial actions which appeared to border on illegality. The seriousness of the situation for the coalition lies in the fact that both of the ministers had appeared to the general public to have the confidence of the Prime Minister in general governmental decision-making, and to be key decision-makers in the coalition’s planning for the general elections.

This appearance of their domination in the Prime Minister’s political planning appears to have been gradually alienating leading members of the Congress of the People (COP), including in particular Winston Dookeran who has appeared to have drawn away from the centre of decision-making both in the COP itself, and in the coalition’s political planning. And there has been a tendency on the part of the public to assume that the odds are that the UNC might have to go the coming elections on its own, as its own behaviour has given the impression that its coalition allies no longer have the hold over public opinion, and the number of opposition (to the PNM) supporters, that had been demonstrated in the last general elections.

In the 2007 elections, called well before they were statutorily due by then Prime Minister Patrick Manning, the People’s Partnership coalition demonstrated its superiority by taking nearly 60% of the vote, reducing the PNM to just over 39%. Manning had, at that time, given the appearance of panicking as the UNC, having shed Basdeo Panday’s leadership, seemed to be regaining the confidence of the electorate. Indeed, Manning felt it necessary to call the general elections two years earlier than they were statutorily due, giving the appearance that the PNM had lost its own self-confidence and ability to last a normal term.

Since then, the PNM itself has had a political turnover with Dr Keith Rowley assuming the leadership of the party, as serious illness overtook Patrick Manning, who had, in any case, demonstrated to his party and the general voting public that he no longer felt that he had confidence in the PNM’s ability to secure its traditional dominance. And the 2010 elections then held demonstrated this fact, as the PNM’s 26-15 parliamentary majority was turned into a People’s Partnership (PP) 29-12 victory.

With the departure from the PP of Jack Warner, who had played a significant role in that coalition’s election planning, and his loss of legitimacy resulting from disclosures relating to his conduct in FIFA, the younger elements of the UNC, in particular Ramlogan and Minister of Housing Roodal Moonilal, seemed to gain dominance in Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s leadership; and there has obviously been a build-up, over the years, of resentment of their position in governmental decision-making. In addition, with issues arising as the government’s tenure continued, Mrs Bissessar seemed also to feel that traditional party personnel were losing the confidence of the electorate, and she has resorted to the appointment of persons, then placed in the Senate, as key ministers, many of these, for instance the current Minister of Finance Larry Howai, not known to have had involvement in the UNC’s affairs.

It did indeed appear, that the Prime Minister had had full confidence in Senate appointee and Minister of National Security Gary Griffith, and particularly in the role of Ramlogan, an elected member and apparently increasingly influential decision-maker in the functioning not only of the UNC, but of the coalition of parties, a role which seems to have gained him the increasing resentment of the Congress of the People. But the Congress itself, with an apparent loss of confidence in Winston Dookeran’s ability to secure his prominence in the coalition government, has found itself increasingly marginalized not only in governmental decision-making, but in influence in the People’s Partnership and among the electorate in general.

Yet, as the PP has been undergoing its travails, Dr Rowley seems to be still not fully consolidated in his leadership of the PNM. The process of choice of candidates for the now imminent general election has indicated that he is still struggling to cope with the influence of the ailing Patrick Manning, now seeming to insist that he wishes to be a member in the new Parliament. And the difficulties that Rowley is facing are illustrated by what appears to be an attempt, in the process of selection of candidates, to marginalize the influence of persons who have been known to be sympathetic to Manning.

In sum, both parties seem to be some way off from consolidating their traditional strengths, even as the general elections are almost here.

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