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The political heat is on in Trinidad and Tobago

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There is never a dull moment in the politics of Trinidad and Tobago, and the upcoming elections called about midway in the term of the PNM government will certainly capture our attention and interest. Basdeo Panday, ‘the consummate actor’, as someone described him, is out of the action. Well, don’t take that for granted, for he has vowed to run as an independent candidate against Jack Warner, his one time political buddy.{{more}} People like Panday never know when to quit. He seemed to have had the belief that the United National Congress belonged to him, but his humiliating defeat at the hands of Kamla Persad Bissessar should have convinced him that it was all over, although he seemed unwilling to bow out gracefully but his threat to run as an independent is apparently not taken seriously by any one. Jack Warner is another character, now making a name for himself as Chairman of the United National Congress Party. Then there is the big one, Patrick Manning, whose reactions show the pressure he is under, having called the general election early in the life of the government. Manning is hitting out at anything and anyone in sight. During the week he was hitting out at all the newspapers, counting the number of pro-government and pro-opposition editorials that were written. His biggest hope is to convince the public in the twin island state that coalition governments don’t work. The sense I am getting is that people are so fed up with his arrogance, lack of accountability and the corruption facing his administration and his bizarre actions and sayings in recent years, that they are prepared to give a chance to the combined opposition.

Things have so far not been going Manning’s way. He succeeded in preventing debate on the motion of no-confidence, but his hope of stalemating the opposition forces before they could come together did precisely the opposite. Now his administration has faced severe embarrassment following the decision last Friday to deport American political strategist Bernard Campbell. The criticisms voiced both in and outside Trinidad and Tobago forced the government to do a rethink of their position and the order banning Campbell was rescinded. Campbell, a member of the team of political advisers/strategists that helped lift Obama into the White House, had been ordered out of Trinidad under strange circumstances. The ban apparently was made under an order in the Immigration Act which declared him an undesirable. Minister of National Security, Martin Joseph, could not explain why he considered Campbell an undesirable and took the only way out, declaring that he did not have to give a reason for his decision. The complete turn- around by Monday was a fallout from the criticisms and concerns raised by the public and influential people within the society that worried about the impact on relations with the United States of America.

There are obvious concerns in the twin island about the stability of the coalition and much would depend on how they present themselves to the public. Dookeran is a key figure in this, playing second fiddle and appearing content in allowing Kamla to move forward. His action would send a clear signal to his supporters, many of whom were disillusioned followers of the Panday led UNC. In all of this, one thing we could expect is that PNMites who were highly critical of Manning would rejoin the PNM, many of them declaring themselves PNM forever. What worries them is the idea of having the Opposition in power. In a country where race and ethnicity mean so much, the PNM and Manning have always benefitted by this but the UNC especially in a coalition that embraces a symbol of black power, labour and a more moderate Congress of the People and with a black man, Jack Warner, as Chairman of the UNC would present a different image to the electorate.

One of the things that has kept Manning in power is the wealth which oil brought to Trinidad and Tobago, but Manning has been guilty of misspending on ‘palacious’ buildings. He did what few leaders even in the developed world would want to do, hosting in one year the Summit of the Americas and a Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference. But that is Manning and his way of going about things. After all of this mal-spending his government is promising to pave all the roads in Trinidad and Tobago. His government, however, has been somewhat generous to the rest of the Caribbean including our own country. At one time it appeared that our Prime Minister was in Trinidad every weekend. The political union of the OECS or some of the OECS countries and Trinidad and Tobago would not survive a defeat of the PNM. In fact, a PNM without Manning is unlikely to take that route. Lying in the background to take the reins of the PNM is Dr. Keith Rowley, his nemesis. There is no love lost between those two, Rowley having been fired from Manning’s Cabinet in 2008. In a public opinion poll published a few months ago Rowley topped his political leader in popular support. Manning’s obvious intention was not to run the Diego Martin West representative, but being on the back foot he had to humble himself. Earlier this week the party asked that a meeting to be held in that constituency where Rowley was going to present himself be postponed until the party presented all of its candidates. Rowley has really been taking things cool.

Manning’s latest action is to refuse to debate Kamla Persad-Bissessar, claiming that he had nothing to gain by doing so. This is a move with which I agree. The public in these small countries see their politicians in action on a daily basis, sometimes hear more from them than they want to. These debates take on a kind of soap opera atmosphere. The politicians play to the gallery and for a public that is often not as discerning as it should be. So our eyes are focused on Trinidad and Tobago and should remain there for another three weeks. In the land of calypso, steelband and carnival we can expect a fair share of political bacchanal. But that is Trinidad and Tobago and there are enough characters around to make it all very colourful. Well, let us not forget Lawrence Maharaj. We can always expect some action from him.

Not far behind will be Antigua, for the recent Court decision would appear to leave the ruling party with no alternative but to call new elections, and already PM Baldwin Spencer has been making some sounds in that direction. Then comes the Mother of all Elections as our dear friend Caspar London would call it. That is going to be a horse of a different colour, so we have to stay tuned. The campaign has begun, though somewhat low keyed at the moment, but before long it would heat up, for time is running out.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.