We have seen this scenario before. ANR Robinson broke away from the People’s National Movement in 1970 and in six years was back in Parliament and ten years later in office as prime minister. Basdeo Panday broke away from the National Alliance for Reconstruction government in 1988 to form Club 88, which eventually became the UNC, and, seven years later was back in government as prime minister.
Ramesh Maharaj broke away from the UNC in 2001 to form Team Unity and seven years later was out of the Parliament and in political oblivion. After Friday night’s meeting, no one can be quite sure where Jack Warner will end up, but one thing is for sure: Kamla Persad-Bissessar is in the fight of her political life. And, now pushing 70, time is not on Warner’s side. Looking at the twin political meetings last Friday, Persad-Bissessar’s UNC campaign looked very much like Panday’s.
But it was not the ascendant Panday of 1988 but the Panday of 2010, when he could not attract a crowd even in the UNC heartlands as he campaigned for what he thought was a routine endorsement of his leadership. At the end of that January 2010 election, he had lost his hold on his party and supporters but was being propped up as Opposition Leader by a few MPs who were busy bargaining for places in a post-Panday era.
Warner’s Pierre Road, Felicity, meeting, on the other hand, was more like the Persad-Bissessar 2010 victorious UNC internal elections campaign. It had energy and an enthusiastic crowd. The PM was defensive at times, trying to roll back on the disastrous speech she delivered on Monday night at the Vishnu Boys’ Hindu School in Caroni, in which she attempted to pretend to have only lately discovered Warner’s conduct, which she had been defending for the last three years.
Initially, I had written off Warner’s challenge in Chaguanas West. But the PP’s decline and Persad-Bissessar’s own free fall, has been even more astounding than that of ANR Robinson. At least he had an economic depression to contend with. She is in decline while presiding over the largest budgets the country has ever seen.
The first sign of trouble was the nomination of Khadijah Ameen. Not that Ameen was a worse candidate than others, but it meant that Persad-Bissessar and the UNC could find no candidate among the senators who comprise her Cabinet who was willing to take the risk. But it should not have been a risk since, as the UNC’s leader continues to remind us, Chaguanas West has always been the safest UNC seat.
By-elections are normally a safe route for moving someone from the Senate to the House of Representatives. It was the route used, for example, to move Ken Valley from the Senate to the Lower House when he came up against former NAR education minister senator Clive Pantin in the Diego Martin Central by-election of 1990.
The UNC has several would-be MPs sitting on the senatorial benches as ministers. Trade and Industry Minister Vasant Bharath, Agriculture Minister Devant Maharaj and Attorney General Anand Ramlogan had all contested seats in the 2007 general elections and all had lobbied to be elected representatives in 2010. None of them, however, seemed eager to go up against Warner.
So the UNC’s campaign pits Ameen, a youthful councillor, against a man who Persad-Bissessar herself has described as her most effective minister and best-performing MP. It is just above the battle for the UNC chairmanship that saw Warner being challenged by Ashvani Mahabir, who was routed despite the backing of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha and the UNC cabal behind him.
On the face of it, this by-election should have been a no-contest. Despite the fact that he has been an effective MP, Warner had so disgraced himself and the country by his Fifa shenanigans that even his most ardent PP supporters were anxious to see the back of him.
The problem is, for all the Fifa allegations, he is appearing cleaner that the rest of the PP Cabinet who were championing his removal. No one in the administration has the moral authority to call him corrupt. The allegations of corruption in the PP are much too pervasive across the members of the Government to be used to deny a man who announces that he donates his entire salary to his constituents, does not travel and refuses to take a low-interest, tax-free car.
Warner’s announcement that his Independent Liberal Party will be seeking full membership in the PP, with him as a leader in his own right, undermines the main UNC campaign theme that he is seeking to bring down the Government. He is even offering to negotiate for seats in the upcoming local government elections.
For now, we need to ignore the fact that the “party” has no vision, no executive, not much of a philosophy, only a symbol and the colour green, which, despite pretensions to speak to the sugar base, also has important connotations to the Chaguanas West Islamic constituency. That makes the ILP, not much different from the UNC, so that, whichever of the two UNC factions eventually prevails on July 29, T&T is still likely to be the overall loser.