Friday, February 23, 2018

Let the campaign begin...

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has quietly and without fanfare launched her campaign to win the 2015 elections.

The signs are unmistakable.

Elections are in the air, the trumpets have been sounded, the war rooms are being filled and those who stand to benefit commercially are relishing the prospect of increased revenues.

It is going to be an uphill battle for the UNC given the missteps, unforced errors and square pegs.

The PNM is scenting victory. They have assumed the posture of winners. Intense lobbying has begun for cabinet posts, ambassadorial assignments and board appointments.

However, I would not be so confident if I were Keith Rowley or Penny Beckles-Robinson —depending on who wins the internal PNM elections.

Why do I say so?

Because if I were a PNM strategist, I would never ever underestimate Kamla Persad-Bissessar. 

Basdeo Panday, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, Patrick Manning and Jack Warner are among many who paid the price for severely underestimating the political acumen of an ever-smiling lady who, among her many assets, appreciates fully the power of political timing, understands the imperatives of politics and who can be very ruthless if circumstances demand.

Mr Panday has still not recovered from her decision to successfully challenge him. It was a masterstroke of flawless timing—the right time, the right message, the right person, the right strategy and the right result. Instead of riding off into the sunset, Mr Panday is still plotting incessantly to regain his kingdom by passing on the legacy to his daughter Mikela. It is manifestly clear that he still fails to realise that we have long passed the stage of dynastic politics.

Why do I advise Keith or Penny not to be complacent? Here are five off-the-cuff reasons:

1. Kamla still remains immensely popular. Even Jack Warner in his heyday knew that he could not attack her head on.  Instead he attacked those around her. In a head-to-head, no-prisoners taken, no-holds-barred contest between “Tanty” Kamla and “Rottweiler” Rowley, I would be a fool to rule her out especially as the UNC has not launched any salvos as yet in the direction of Dr Rowley. One can predict that the UNC armoury is being replenished and that bullets will soon fly.

2. She has skilfully eliminated Mr Warner (with all his money and street-fighting acumen) as a significant vote-getting force. He may still pull in a couple of hundred votes as he did in the local elections and in St Joseph. But the glory days of Chaguanas West are over. The COP, even with Winston Dookeran as leader, is a spent force and the less said about the Movement for Social Justice the better. So it looks like, never mind nuisance parties, a straight UNC versus PNM battle in 2015. In a head-to-head fight between the UNC and the PNM all bets are off. Whoever believes it is an assured PNM victory, I have a bridge in Toronto to sell them.

3. Kamla has launched her campaign very early—more than a year before general elections are due. She has enlisted T&T’s UN Ambassador, Rodney Charles, to head the campaign. A wise choice indeed. For those who do not know, Mr Charles, despite overwhelming odds, together with Fazal Karim (and James Carville) gave the UNC its first electoral victory ever in 2000 with the theme: “Performance beats ole talk anytime”. He came up with a drawn election one year later. He sat out all other elections until 2010 when he was part of the winning Kamla team. His record with the UNC is an enviable two wins and one draw. As a former PNM member, he knows reflexively how the PNM thinks.  Ask Dr Vaughan Lewis about his elections campaign work in St Lucia where he resurrected the United Workers Party to the point where Sir John Compton, on reviewing the polling data and the potential for success, decided there and then to selfishly take back his party. He went on to win. Dr Lewis, now a member of the St Lucia labour Party, may well advise the PNM and their strategists to hold off on counting their chickens.

4. Kamla, despite her engaging demeanour and friendly face, has shown that she can be ruthless when circumstances demand. She has followed Eric Williams in getting rid of political baggage when necessary. Among those discarded by Dr Williams were: CLR James, Brinsley Barrow, Carlton Gomes, ANR Robinson, Aeneas Wills, Sham Mohammed, Eugenio Moore, Patrick Solomon and Gerard Montano. Kamla has been no less forceful but she has done so with much less vindictiveness and acrimony. Anyone in her camp who plays the fool, does not perform, or becomes electoral baggage or in any other way reduces her chances of victory now understands that they can be summarily dismissed.

5. The Prime Minister knows, or no doubt will be advised, that she has to rebrand the party, present a new image, get rid of excessive baggage, learn from the experience of the first five years, come up with a new vision and possibly make some changes in her slate of candidates. As a student of Eric Williams she can be expected to follow the template of the premier politician in T&T.

One week can be a lifetime in politics. A year can be like a century. If I were Dr Rowley, Ms Beckles-Robnison and all the exuberant PNMites including Selwyn Cudjoe and others, I would not count my chickens before they are hatched.

• Capil Bissoon is a Trini-Canadian looking on at T&T politics from a distance.