Ramesh Maharaj is correct in saying that the outcome of the January internal elections of the United National Congress (UNC) will determine the future political prospects of the party. Indeed, to take that projection further along the road of rep-resentative politics, the out come will also determine the short-term political landscape of T&T. It is clear that if the UNC membership returns Basdeo Panday as its political leader, the party will be doomed to opposition. Moreover the UNC, as now configured, is sure to receive an ever-declining share of the number of votes and seats in the local and general elections up ahead. Even before Panday's legal difficulties and his thrashing in the last general election of 2007–both by the PNM and Dookeran's Congress of the People, that party having been able to steal 148,000 votes from under Panday's nose (and the qualification is made that not all the 148,000 came from the UNC base)–it was difficult for large clusters of voters from outside the UNC belt to support him as a national leader. That difficulty has been compounded since being tarnished by several yet-to-be-satisfactorily answered actions taken by Panday when he was Prime Minister.
Another element of Panday's unattractiveness to ambitious UNC supporters, those who want to see the party in government, must be his track record of failing to develop a coalition base when he was Prime Minister. He destroyed what was left of the National Alliance for Reconstruction in Trinidad. He snubbed the Tobago arm of the party when he fired the Tobago senators, made it difficult for Pam Nicholson to continue as minister, and ignored the Hochoy Charles-led Tobago House of Assembly. Panday's efforts at attracting portions of the PNM support base during his time in government amounted to no more than wooing a couple of opportunist PNM MPs. The reality is since losing the elections of 2002, Panday has been in a "struggle" to hold on to his traditional base. In the circumstances he has become even less of an attraction to non-UNC voters. What then of the alternatives for the UNC membership? In Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Ramesh Maharaj the party has two formidable politicians who hold out possibilities for rejuvenating the party and going on to engage a coalition with other political forces, notably the COP and what is left of the NAR/DAC rump in Tobago and the other minor parties which exist.
The immediate issue though is whether the contest between the two would open the door for Panday to slide in because of the split in the anti-Panday vote, those who think that it is time for the old war horse to move on and allow the UNC to breathe anew and resuscitate itself. The second issue is for the UNC electorate to determine which one of Maharaj and Persad-Bissessar has the best chance to reunite the warring factions of the UNC constituency, including those who have become disenchanted and are withholding their support and active participation. Critically, too, the UNC membership has also to decide which of the two would be most attractive as the party determines to broaden its appeal and eventually its support base in order to trounce the PNM in a general election. From the readings of the political barometer, Persad-Bissessar cuts the more likeable figure inside and outside of the UNC. Already, Jack Warner and Winston Dookeran have indicated they would be supportive of her and in the instance of Dookeran would be willing to talk about some form of accommodation.
No one has readily said the same with regard to a possible Maharaj win. That of course does not mean that if the Tabaquite MP were to emerge as leader of the UNC, Warner, Dookeran and others would not be open to discussions. Persad-Bissessar's record within the UNC has been about compromise, even when it was thought that she did not need to bend further to the wishes of the dominant males of the UNC. Having been selected to warm the seat of Attorney General in 1995, she moved delicately aside when Ramesh Maharaj was ready to take over the job. Her role has been to subserve Panday, never once indicating a desire to cross her mentor and leader, even when she felt "used and abused."
She has shown herself to be open to meeting and discussing possible coalition efforts with Dookeran and the COP. In the last couple weeks she has clearly been listening to what Jack Warner has had to say about re-uniting the UNC. Persad-Bissessar is therefore well positioned to achieve internal unity and a coalition of the opposition forces if she were to win the political leadership of the UNC. In the wider national community, Persad-Bissessar is not seen as an ethnic hardliner in the manner that Panday has certainly come to be seen. Therefore within the right coalition framework, Persad-Bissessar could win the trust and give comfort to the non-UNC base, which is needed if the party of central and south Trinidad is to win a general election. Undoubtedly, though, Ramesh Maharaj has a greater capacity, above all else, for whipping the UNC into the kind of fighting organisation that could thrash the PNM in the next general election whenever it is called. Whether he would be sufficiently disposed to and be able to initiate the kinds of political alliances needed is a different question.
Also, Maharaj still disturbs large numbers of people who do not feel completely comfortable with him in the number one spot leading the UNC; something akin to but not exactly like Panday in 1986. While the then leader of the United Labour Front (the predecessor to the UNC) clearly commanded the majority party in the coalition, Robinson was the one chosen to lead as he had respect and trust of the national population. What Maharaj however does for the UNC support base is to assure that he will not be a pushover in a national coalition. It is going to be the most significant decision for the UNC membership to make: stay with Panday and confine the UNC to being the Opposition; choose the right one of Maharaj and Persad-Bissessar and give the party and the national community an alternative government.