The COP’s last stand
On the surface it is all very simple and understandable. In the light of the approaching local government elections, the relevant parties in the People’s Partnership are locked in negotiations over how many and which regional corporations each is going to contest.
Not even the news that those negotiations have hit a serious snag over the COP’s insistence that it should have the exclusive right to contest the Tunapuna Regional Corporation would, by itself, be cause for any particular interest given that posturing by parties and dire predictions of breakdown of talks are well known negotiating tactics.
And the fact that in these negotiations all the parties seem to be agreed that a resolution would be arrived at by today (Monday, September 23) lends further support to the notion that all the sound and fury surrounding these negotiations means very little and all matters will be resolved and settled peacefully.
But I would want to suggest that there is more to what is happening in these negotiations than is immediately apparent on the surface and that it would be worth our while to pay some attention to what is happening because the outcome is definitely going to be of some significance to the future politics of the country.
There are three issues which we need to bear in mind, as background, when we seek to assess the significance of these negotiations. The first of these is the fact that the COP has become increasingly fractured over the three years of its participation in this Government and particularly since Winston Dookeran stepped down as political leader.
The reasons for this fracturing were clearly put to the party by Derek Ramsamooj back in March of 2012 when he warned the COP membership that, “If you do not stand up for your political identity you will be subsumed sooner rather than later”. And a few weeks ago former executive member of the party Vernon de Lima described it as “seriously fractured” and stated that “it should have left the Partnership two years ago”.
The second issue and one that is intimately related to the first is the clear perception throughout the country that the COP has lost whatever political relevance it ever had. The population has witnessed a party which campaigned on the platform of “new politics” give mealy-mouthed excuses for its failure to denounce the rampant corruption being practised by its coalition partner the UNC.
Even worse, it seemed to the COP membership and the population at large that every time the party sought to take a stand on a matter of principle, such as the Marlene Coudray affair, it ended up putting its tail between its legs and slinking off to lick its wounds.
The third issue of importance was the result of the Chaguanas West by-election. As I noted in this column a few weeks ago, that result brought to the COP “greater leverage than it has ever had, (in the coalition) since it now can guarantee the Government’s majority in Parliament,..”
But I went on to warn that “Mr Ramadhar should be careful not to bet too much on that increased leverage”. I argued further that “… while their increased leverage may be enough to bring them an additional seat or two, or an additional ministry or two, they really cannot demand too much lest the UNC calls their bluff. To play the withdrawal of support card in Parliament is to bring down the Government. To bring down the Government is to destroy themselves.”
So this is the context that we should be aware of as we seek to analyse the negotiations in the Partnership over who fights what in the local government elections.
Given its serious fracturing over the years, given its increasing irrelevance in the politics and given now its suddenly increased leverage as a result of the result of the Chaguanas West by-election it may well be that the COP views these negotiations as a do-or-die event.
In fact, one unnamed source in the party is reported to have stated that the COP has three choices, namely to accept the UNC-dominated position and accede to its demands, (to) request a leadership meeting among coalition heads, or (to) make the “ultimate decision” and walk away from the Partnership. “If the meeting with the Prime Minister does not yield any fruit, then we may have to take the ultimate decision,” the source added.
When we add to such sentiments the recent statements by COP chairperson Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan to the effect that the COP may consider putting up its own candidate to contest the upcoming St Joseph by-election, then we can discern the emergence of a posture by the COP that these local government negotiations constitute a veritable last stand.
But the consequences of such a stand, however the drama unfolds, are going to be significant to a greater or lesser degree, to the politics of the country. In the first place, if the COP is seen by the population to capitulate again on this issue after making such a song and dance, then that would be the death knell of the party. They might as well thereafter fold their tents and quietly join the UNC.
If, on the other hand, they are seen to get what they want from these negotiations, then that would certainly help to revivify their fortunes. But it would also lead to greater demands from their supporters for the COP leadership to assert their policy position on more and more issues within the Partnership. Such assertiveness is eventually going to meet with resistance and the UNC is going to demand that the COP shows its hand or folds.
The third possibility is that the UNC rebuffs the COP which is then forced to “take the ultimate decision.” If the COP walks away from the Partnership then sooner or later it is going to have to vote against the Government precipitating fresh general elections.
Then the bacchanal start.
—Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.