Monday, January 22, 2018

Beyond Balisier House


Mark Fraser

 According to two recent polls, the PNM will win a general election by 16 to 20 points in a straight fight with the Partnership. But, the polls assume a neat two-party match-up in 2015 and do not consider third and fourth parties that split votes in the marginal constituencies. If it plans on returning to government, the PNM should not overrate its significant lead at this time. It’s a long way to the general election and the Partnership will mount a major no-holds-barred fight for a second term. Dr Rowley is best positioned to lead the PNM’s battle against all-comers for the next government, so why change that? 

Despite the warnings from the two leadership contenders that the PNM’s internal election is its business, the wider context of the battle is no secret. This leadership battle is not PNM business only. The slant of the two polls indicates the interest of those who commissioned them lie outside the PNM. 

This is about the 2015 general elections. The polls measure Penny’s potential in a match-up with the Partnership, and compares that with Dr Rowley’s. They also test the PNM’s performance against the Partnership in a 2015 match-up without Dr Rowley and alternatively without Penny, if it comes to that. 

But, the polls do not define the Partnership, and do not assess the various scenarios in a three-party or four-party race in which either the ILP or the COP or both of them are outside the Partnership. And, those who commissioned the polls must have asked the important question of the outcome of a Penny-Rowley contest within the PNM but are likely holding those results close to their chests. Still, with just a slice of the general election electorate, PNM financial members could end up deciding the country’s next prime minister. 

This connection between the PNM leadership battle and the PNM’s lead in the race to 2015 is not lost on political investors. Chandrabose Sharma, the Maha Sabha executive member and self-described “man behind Pennelope” says powerful backers inside and outside the PNM have lined up behind Penny. So far, Penny has won more endorsements from the Partnership than the PNM, an indication of the opponent the Partnership prefers in its bid for a second term. 

For a week in early February Penny soaked up Anand Ramlogan’s glowing endorsement of her candidacy, enough time for PNM members to give it the suspicion it deserves. Ramlogan was eventually warned to stay out of PNM business, but the Partnership knows this is not just PNM business, but the Partnership’s also. 

On the Partnership side, the two polls ignored the unsettled composition of the coalition. The Partnership does not like multi-party fights and though previous elections results may not be perfect guides, the 2007 and 2010 general elections results suggest that the Partnership is best in a two-party fight with the PNM. Unfortunately, the Partnership has troubles. 

First, there are suggestions that any unity discussions with the ILP could have two fallouts: the departure of Kamla and the exit of the COP. The PM seems disinclined, even with the prospect of a safer passage to a second term, to bring the ILP back into the Partnership fold. A push by the UNC-led grouping to bring the ILP back in could see her departure in favour of UNC Deputy Political Leader Dr Roodal Moonilal. Then, an ILP return could signal a COP departure from the Partnership, although individual members of the COP may switch allegiance and opt to stay in the Partnership while the COP leaves.  

Second, a Moonilal-led Partnership will not do as well as a Kamla-led Partnership. Whatever her difficulties as leader of the UNC, the Partnership, and the country, Kamla remains popular and will prove, as Panday did even in his most difficult times, to be the best vote-getter for the Partnership. 

And third, a COP departure from the Partnership on account of an ILP return will create the same third-party vote-splitting problems the ILP has created. The COP can split votes from the Partnership, and weaken the Partnership chances in the close races it must win to return for a second term.

The PNM’s leadership battle now flanks the variables within the Partnership, but the PNM race will be decided first. Whatever the individual personal histories and aspirations of the two known contenders, this PNM race will be decided by the efficiency of each camp in getting their supporters signed up and financial. So far the attention is on the leadership race, but that race will only take shape when the slates for all the posts are announced. That will also happen soon.

Whatever the PNM says this internal election has implications for the country. The party failed to learn from its problems leading up to the 1981 general elections that it won, and the 1986 general elections it lost miserably. From the core of three MPs in 1986 it fashioned the scandalous form that the voters turned out of office in 1995 and 2010. In 2010 Dr Rowley played an unprecedented role in local politics: firing upon the PNM leadership while wearing that party’s symbol to a seventh personal win in Diego Martin West. 

Whatever the merits of the Penny challenge, she must shake off the questions of her perceived proximity to and support from the Partnership. Dr Rowley has no such problem. In 2013 he moved the PNM from an 800-vote lead over the TOP in 2009 in Tobago, to an 8,000-vote lead and a clean sweep. Under him, the PNM reversed the local government elections losses of 2010 and also captured the St. Joseph seat. Since May 2010, the Partnership has been completely unsettled by Dr Rowley. 

In promoting Penny, the Partnership is seeking its interests, not the PNM’s. For the PNM leadership election the Partnership might as well offer the tagline, “Vote Penny, give Kamla a second term”.

• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer