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Back to tribal politics

‘...T&T will vote along racial lines in 2015’
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Kamla Persad-Bissessar

Politics. Without a doubt, it dominated the airwaves, newspapers and television screens for the greater part of the past 12 months. The coming year, 2014, will be a critical year for the Government as it will have just months left to make good on 2010 platform promises in order to lay the foundation for the general election in 2015. Analysts have predicted that the next general election could be called between May and November 2015, giving all parties 15 months to impress the electorate.



The upcoming year will also see the People’s National Movement kicking off the political walkabouts very early. The party is expected to have its first constituency walkabout on January 6 in South Port-of-Spain and Sangre Grande the day after. The parties, according to several analysts, would be faced with a return to tribal politics in 2015 with the electorate demarcated along racial and marginal lines. 


In the past 12 months, the country endured four elections; two triggered by the resignations of MPs have helped make 2013 a politically historic year. While several analysts have weighed in on the political by-play, Dr Indira Rampersad has described 2013 as a “landmark year for politics” as the ruling party, the United National Congress, lost all four elections in one year. 


Fellow analysts, Mukesh Basdeo, Bishnu Ragoonath and Dr Winford James also added their opinion on the current political temperature and explained how 2013 has already set the stage for the next general election in 2015. They also agreed that 2013 showed a return to tribal politics and voting along race lines as was evidenced by the PNM’s victory at the polls at the local government elections. 


But while the analysts held varying views on the major political parties, they all agreed that the biggest political story for 2013 was the four elections and four losses sustained by the ruling UNC over the course of the year. 


Paving the way for two-party battle in 2015
It was a year that two parties claimed victory at the polls. The Opposition reclaimed the ground lost just three years ago, winning nine of the 14 municipal corporations, while the UNC-led coalition retained five of the eight it contested. The population remained riveted while those four elections played out with all the bacchanal of a mini soap opera. The electorate tuned in daily to the unfolding drama on the political stage, eagerly awaiting more of the commess that they had come to expect.


Political analyst Dr Winford James blamed the People’s Partnership for the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) first loss at the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election in January. “If the PP, and by that I mean the UNC, had not taken a lead role in the TOP campaign, the TOP would have had some part in the governing of Tobago. But the routing of the TOP was a routing of the PP, and the people of Tobago showed that they were disgusted with the PP,” James said.


The two by elections and local government elections that followed did not do anything to rebuild the ground lost by the PP. “It was the first time a ruling party lost four elections in one year but was able to keep their base in tact,” Rampersad said. Rampersad said during the local government elections and St Joseph by election the UNC made the strategic decision to “train their guns” on Warner, rather than on the PNM. She said by removing Warner’s ILP from the line-up, the UNC was “better poised” to focus on the PNM.


“I think they were willing to sacrifice the success at both the local government and the St Joseph by election in order to deal with the ILP. They lost the battle in order to win the war. It is a very successful strategy to sideline Warner,” she said. James agreed that the UNC focused more on Warner than the PNM during the local government elections. “When they lost that election they rejoiced because while they did not defeat the PNM, they defeated the ILP and Warner,” James said.


“That is because the UNC was more fearful of losing to Jack Warner than to the PNM.” He said the UNC was afraid that Warner would undermine its base especially after he trounced the party in the Chaguanas West election. Both analysts agreed that the unfolding dynamics paved the way for the usual two-party election battle in 2015.



The “Jack” factor
Warner first stirred the pot when he split from the Government in the first quarter of the year. His resignation triggered the Chaguanas West by election, which Rampersad said was historic in itself as it was the first time the UNC lost that traditional seat. “There were internal dynamics at play, and the major issue was Jack Warner,” she said. “The Chaguanas West win was a phenomenal victory for Warner and it changed the fortunes of both the UNC and the PP.” 


Rampersad also said it was the first time the UNC heartland had voted for a party led by a non-Indo Trinidadian. James, though, did not agree with the belief that Chaguanas West was truly a UNC heartland but said it was an area that the UNC expected to win.
“Chaguanas used to be a place they won consistently, so to lose to Warner and the ILP as their second loss for the year signalled of what was to come,” he said.


With respect to the St Joseph by-election, Rampersad echoed the sentiment expressed by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar throughout the campaign. “Warner split the vote and that augers well for the UNC going forward.” Again, James had a different view. “I don’t see them regaining lost ground, neither have I seen them doing anything to regain that lost ground,” he said. He said in the past three years the public perception had turned away from the Government.



“They do not seem to be doing anything to turn that tide and maybe it’s because they do not know how to, but they seem to still be in a political bubble even after four losses at the polls,” James said.



Ups, downs and unholy alliance
James said it was Warner’s split with the Government and his subsequent public statements about the cabal and the cliques within the party that gave the first indication that all was not well. “That was a momentous development because whether it is acknowledged or not, Jack Warner was instrumental in the installation of the UNC and the Partnership in Government,” he said.


He said Warner’s complete distancing from the PP also triggered the return of former prime minister Basdeo Panday and former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj and started talk of the three uniting as a political force. “I don’t know if there’s any truth to that, it is so outlandish,” James said. “I am not willing to give it any thought at this time.” Rampersad too did not believe that Panday or Maharaj would return to politics. “I think Panday is having fun,” she said.


“I do not see him forging any major alliance as all three have lost elections and have been enemies. That would be an unholy alliance.” Rampersad said neither Panday nor Maharaj had the electorate’s support base to contest any election. This, she said, coupled with Warner’s alliance with the almost defunct National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) was evidence of his desperation.


“Warner grasping at straws. That affiliation with the NAR is a phenomenal mistake that he should not have made. It is a sign of desperation that he should not have shown at this point in time,” she said.



‘Rowley kept the Govt on its toes in Senate’
It was the best of recent times for the Opposition PNM, who in the past three years found their footing again and in three of the four elections ended up laughing all the way to the electoral bank with a pocketful of public support. 



But that resurgence of public support came at a price. Rumours of possible mutiny against leader Dr Keith Rowley rocked the party early in the year, but as is customary for the close knit unit, the seniors closed ranks and smiled for the cameras, denying that anything was amiss. The talk surfaced that longtime party member Penelope Beckles had the leadership chair in her sights and was ready to challenge Rowley.


But after launching a revamped image as a more personable and approachable future prime minister and coming off the high of three victories in the elections, Rowley was not about to cede. By the end of the year, those rumours grew fresh legs and ran through the public when Rowley announced a senatorial change-up. When Beckles was renounced no one expressed much surprise, but when Rowley axed his close friend senator Fitzgerald Hinds, even a few party seniors were speechless.


With the internal election expected early in the new year and a general election the year after that, all eyes are on the PNM for their next course of action. “It is an interesting dynamic, but I think Dr Rowley validated himself as the Opposition Leader if not the political leader of the PNM,” Rampersad said. Rampersad said Rowley has succeeded as the Opposition Leader because he managed to “keep the Government on their toes” in the Senate.


“However he has inherited a set support base and it would be interesting to see if he was able to expand on that. It is more than including a young Indo-Trinidadian on the Senate line-up,” she said. But having said that, Rampersad added that she did not see Beckles having enough support to “wrest” leadership from Rowley. James too believed that Rowley may be challenged for leadership but would be victorious. 



“They cannot afford to change him. He is the one who allowed the challenge to take place which is unusual within the PNM,” James said. “The one thing that the PNM needs to do is open up the party, the PNM needs to be more transparent,” he said.



Political analysts are eager to see what the coming year would bring as the there major political parties hold internal elections. Will Congress of the People’s Prakash Ramadhar retain his leadership of the coalition partner? Or would he pay the ultimate price for remaining under the UNC-dominated partnership?


Within the PNM, Rowley’s leadership could be challenged by Penelope Beckles who had previously thrown her hat in the ring for leadership. Political analyst Mukesh Basdeo recalled that there was a faction within the PNM seeking to oust Rowley in order to “preserve the balisier.” In a telephone interview, Basdeo said the sub-sect adhered to the “fundamental philosophy” of the PNM, and Rowley could pay a political price if they believe he has strayed.


“We should note that 2014 will also be an election year. There will be three elections, not on a national scale, but within the PNM, UNC and COP,” Basdeo said. He said the parties would all be laying the foundation for the general election in 2015. “General election is just 15 months away,” he said. He said while both the PNM, UNC and COP had internal elections due in 2014, it was the PNM that may be most highly contested.


“There is the possibility of a challenge for leadership. Dr Rowley was quite successful in St Joseph and the local government elections and was able to reverse the loss of 2010,” he said. Basdeo said within the UNC, former leader and prime minister Basdeo Panday could add to the dynamics within the party. 


“Panday was never done with politics. He was always behind the scenes and in the background. He may take an advisory role in the UNC, but it would be interesting to see if he’d provide a slate,” he said. Basdeo said 2014 would see the implementation of 2010 platform promises and political parties would be getting themselves ready for the general election.


Another analyst, Bishnu Ragoonath said 2014 would see a “deepening” of politics of both the UNC and PNM. “Both parties would have to dig their feet into the sand and set their base for the upcoming general election.” He, however, questioned the budding relationship between Warner, Panday and Maharaj and how that would impact the current temperature within the UNC. “Panday never left politics. “Ramesh not going anywhere politically. There is a fear factor, and he is not going to push himself and get refused.


“Warner is still harbouring hopes that his party will become a mainstream party,” Ragoonath said. With regard to the PNM internal election, he said Rowley held the trump card. “He has the date in his back pocket, so we all have to wait and see what happens with that.”


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