Just as Dr Keith Rowley packed his bags for South Africa, his PNM’s curry worries hopped the “new management” sign. The PNM may not need an ethnic cross-section to win the general election due by 2015, but it will need more than its traditional support to govern. General secretary Ashton Ford’s concern over Penny Beckles’ table-beating and curry-duck trip to Debe runs counter to the PNM’s renewed push for broader acceptance amongst voters. And if Dr Rowley does not take charge of this messaging, there will be more bag packing for the PNM leading up to 2015.
Between the growing belief that the PNM will form the next government and the elections that may confirm that belief, internal PNM and UNC elections will be held. The outcome of those elections will impact what happens in 2015.
On the UNC side a challenge to the political leader may seem to be in the party’s best interest if it wishes to win in 2015. But, despite increasing disenchantment among UNC supporters, that grief is largely directed towards the people around the political leader and not the leader herself. Despite the notion of the leader’s ultimate responsibility and the dismissal of a view of the political leader’s victimhood at the hands of a cabal, Kamla continues to enjoy more support among potential voters than any of her suggested successors. There may eventually be a leadership battle within the UNC but it does not seem that a battle prior to 2015 will do the party much good in a general election.
On the PNM side the political leader has set the stage for a major leadership battle if anyone wants one. Two significant changes make things different. First, the PNM has abandoned the delegate system of voting in favour of one-man one-vote. And second, the political leader has brought the internal elections forward by a year, avoiding an election year skirmish and setting the tone for the party’s move into 2015 campaign gear.
The PNM continues to work out the details of the Rowley-promoted changes to the party’s constitution. Contrary to views being expressed Dr Rowley continues his posture that forced him out of Patrick Manning’s Cabinet but not out of Manning’s 2007 and 2010 line ups. He has ushered the basic PNM changes that may lead to a challenge to his own leadership. And he has made recent Senate changes that have opened eyes and potentially set the challenges to his leadership in motion. The curry worries form part of those events.
Dr Rowley’s life in the PNM has been split into two. Prior to his challenge of Patrick Manning’s handling of the Government and Calder Hart in particular, Rowley was a PNM trump card on the platform and in Parliament. His debating skills and ability to pound political opponents with his command of the issues served the PNM well. But even while he enjoyed internal PNM support, he has been profiled by the opposition as racist and erratic. There is no evidence of the former and the latter is founded in Manning’s own response to Rowley’s challenge to him.
As political leader, Dr Rowley has also faced an undercurrent of Manning support within the party. With the Senate changes and the responses from elsewhere in the party to Penny’s Debe visit, murmurs of anti-Rowley sentiment have been heard.
Dr Rowley’s opposition within the PNM will come from two sources. First, that pro-Manning support longing for a return to Manning’s style of leadership or lack of it is still within the party. These PNMites will ride the bandwagon of anyone willing to return to Manning’s lack of political discipline and cliquish ways. Second, the more severe source of opposition will come from those PNMites who believe that Dr Rowley will not sufficiently unite the party going into 2015 and will not sufficiently broaden the PNM support, especially among new voters and traditional opposition voters.
So far the PNM has downplayed Ashton Ford’s initial reaction to Penny’s Debe visit. After the party’s recent general council meeting, its new Leader of the Opposition in the Senate did not attach much significance to the issue and certainly did not raise it to the level that Ford managed to do in Dr Rowley’s absence. But Ford’s reaction is important enough. It signals that despite the party’s push to a real sense of democracy and openness through its constitutional changes, pockets of resistance remain. The PNM’s internal stability is built around the, “not a damn dog bark” philosophy, a mantra that permeated its approach to government and governance, promoting silence and perpetuating mishandling.
Neither Mr Ford nor the PNMites he claimed called the party with concerns over Penny’s Debe trip can be serious. Based on the popular support for the PM and Opposition Leader’s trip to South Africa, the country wishes to see more political co-operation and consensus. International lending agencies have highlighted the wastage and delays caused by changes in government and the ensuing abandonment or mutilation of projects in-train. There is evidence on both sides of the political fence of favour and disfavour when governments change. State boards are culled, senior government positions are thrown into chaos and throughout, the victor claims the spoils.
In a small country with limited human resources and massive development needs, we cannot afford to have half the country sidelined for five years. In a plural society we cannot have one ethnic group on the sidelines every five years. And, in a country where distrust run deep, we cannot promote cliques and clans.
There is nothing to suggest that Ashton Ford has spoken on behalf of Dr Rowley on the visit by Penny to Debe. But he has spoken, and that alone suggests that the PNM has work to do, starting with its historic curry worries.
• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and university lecturer