May 28, 2010
Winds of change in T&T

Fri, May 28, 2010

SEARCHLIGHT offers its heartiest congratulations to Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar on her appointment as Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. In a male-dominated world of politics, it is always refreshing to welcome a woman at the helm, given the imbalance between the participation of women in political campaigning and their eventual representation at the highest levels of decision-making.{{more}}

In addition to the gender perspective, the new PM also brings the hopes of more than 700,000 Trinbagonians about a new sense of national unity. Politics in the twin-island state has historically been divided along racial lines, but not only is Mrs Persad-Bissessar leading the Caribbean version of a “rainbow coalition”, uniting the traditional Indian-based United National Congress (UNC) with its offshoot Congress of the People (COP) as well as four other political groupings, but at the polls, the People’s Partnership was able to make inroads into areas long held by Patrick Manning’s People’s National Movement (PNM).

The result was a landslide 29 -12 victory for the Partnership in a 70 per cent turnout at the polls. Interestingly, the election results again brought to the fore the age-old issue of electoral reform. Comparisons with the 2007 elections give a vivid illustration. Then, the PNM was victorious, polling a total of 299,813 votes to gain 26 of the 41 seats at stake. The UNC, then led by Basdeo Panday, chalked up 194,425 votes and the remaining 15 seats. Pity the COP, though. In spite of garnering 148,041 votes, under the first-past-the-post system, COP got not a single seat. Fast-track to 2010, the COP, while polling a combined sum of 108,143 votes (it contested fewer seats), has won 6 seats.

If ever the case for proportional representation is to be raised, this is a good example.

There are also huge implications of the defeat of the PNM and the installation of the broad national coalition. For Trinidad and Tobago, saddled with huge corruption that results in the failure to adequately utilize its vast natural and human resources, there is the opportunity for the new government to turn over a new leaf. Patrick Manning had been perceived as becoming arrogant and autocratic, divorced from the ordinary folk. The new Prime Minister will simply have to demonstrate a very opposite direction. Issues of democracy, the shocking crime rate, governance and the struggle to end corruption and cronyism will be high on the agenda.

For us in SVG and the Eastern Caribbean as a whole, the election results have far more meaning than the simplistic “winds of change”. The Manning government had been pursuing a policy of closer integration with the smaller states in the region. It even went so far as to be part of an agreement for political unification with SVG and Grenada, its immediate neighbours to the north. It is not clear whether the People’s Partnership would be as enthused or committed in that direction. Then the PNM administration has used its huge financial resources and political clout to provide financial assistance for OECS countries, including access to the Regional Development Fund.

Additionally, there is regional air transportation. Under Manning, the T&T government not only took over Air Jamaica, but also supported LIAT. Manning is on record during the campaign as saying that a takeover of LIAT is part of the puzzle in securing one regional airline, presumably Caribbean Airlines. And, there is the huge issue of T&T’s support for a successor company to replace the failed British American Insurance company which has massive implications for the economies of the Eastern Caribbean islands.

For SVG, and the Gonsalves administration in particular, there will be concern about the continuation of bilateral projects, including the crucial issue of financial assistance for the construction of the Argyle International airport. PM Gonsalves has been very fortright in both expressing optimism for continued excellent relations with the new administration and in seeking clarification about continuity.

These are the critical issues for the region as a whole.Will the new administration in Port of Spain react to Manning’s grand initiatives by becoming more locally focused? Will it see its priorities in rectifying the many ills in its own society rather than taking on further integration burdens? How will it relate to governments such as those in Grenada and SVG, identified as being close to Manning and the PNM? One can only hope that the umbrella of the People’s Partnership would extend far beyond Trinbagonian shores to encompass its Caribbean neighbours.