I remember back in 1986 going to listen to a PNM election meeting at the corner of Bournes Road and the Western Main Road in St James. The meeting was not a particularly exciting affair until the late senator Carl Tull took to the platform. Tull, bringing to bear all his experience in crowd excitation from his trade union days, succeeded in waking up the modest crowd when he hugged himself, shivered like a leaf and shouted, “Ah feeling the feeling, Ah feeling it”.
The election of 1986 was, of course, the one in which the PNM suffered the worst defeat in its history. And, long before the election date, the political people in the party were getting the polling data which was telling them that the prognosis was grim.
So it was difficult for speakers to come to the platform exuding an air of confidence. PNM campaign meetings that year were like funeral wakes: Crix and cheese and rum and the open coffin holding the dead. Except, that is, when real political people like Carl Tull took to the stage, real political people who understood that, in good times and bad, the job of a campaign is to fire up the supporters.
The PNM no longer has any colourful, larger-than-life characters like Carl Tull. Once Patrick Manning took over the reins of the party he relentlessly drove all colour and character out of its ranks and accumulated around him a set of nondescript, grey toadies who would not dream of challenging him.
But even grey toadies can feel the feeling and it is clear that all those stalwarts who long to walk the corridors of power again (or for the first time) are sensing that, if the party plays its cards right, then, given the mind-boggling corruption of the UNC and its partners, the elections of 2015 would be a shoo-in if only party supporters could refrain from rocking the boat between now and then.
And that is why, even though the leadership elections of the party are still more than two months away, there are so many striving to convince party supporters that the elections are a mere formality and that “Dr Rowley is the man for them”.
They are mortally afraid that the leadership elections, being contested for the first time in the party’s history on the basis of one man one vote, may turn into a genuine battle, dividing the party along ideological lines and forcing the candidates, in full view of the rest of the country, to take positions on issues which may be either too controversial or betray a lack of planning, policy and programme.
So lest that dire possibility – that the contest may turn out to be an exercise in genuine democracy — comes to pass, the party elders such as they are, are already to be seen declaring the outcome before the first vote is even cast.
For some it would be preferable that there be no election and that Dr Rowley be returned to the position of political leader by glorious acclamation. So for Mr Imbert, giving what the polls show is a steady increase in support for Dr Rowley more than a year before the next general election, the question is “why on earth would anybody, in the face of that evidence, want to change the PNM leadership at this point in time?”
Party chairman Franklin Khan advances much the same argument. In an interview in February he made his position clear when he stated that: “We stand firmly behind Dr Rowley’s leadership and feel very strongly that he would take us to victory in 2015.” And, since Mr Khan was definitely feeling that feeling, he asked party members and loyalists “on what basis can they think of changing the leader”.
Then there was fellow Express commentator Selwyn Ryan who in his column of January 26, a full two weeks before Pennelope Beckles-Robinson finally confirmed her candidacy for the leadership post, gave his ex-cathedra opinion that, “This author is of the view that there are no serious challengers to Dr Rowley and that it is unlikely that he would be successfully ambushed as Mr Panday was in 2010”.
Finally (at least up to the time of writing) on Carnival Monday we had Selwyn (Cudjoe this time) telling us in no uncertain terms that, “I am certain that Keith Rowley will emerge victorious at the PNM’s party election and go on to become the next prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago”.
Prof Cudjoe has every right to his certainties. But we the citizens looking on at what is happening in the PNM, need to note that back in 2011 Prof Cudjoe had declared that he “supported the candidacy of Penny Beckles to become the chairman of the PNM” because he thought she was the better candidate. On that occasion he further noted that “the intellectual calibre of our party’s leadership is not the highest in the land.”
This is why, in spite of all these attempts by PNM stalwarts to railroad the party electorate into believing that the leadership elections are all but over and that Dr Rowley is preparing to be anointed, it remains in the best interest of the party and the country, that these internal PNM elections truly result in an open and vigorous debate and discussion between the candidates and their supporters on the fundamental issues of government and governance in Trinidad and in Tobago.
I remember when Kamla Persad-Bissessar was challenging Mr Panday for leadership of the UNC, I wrote an open letter to her in which I stated the following: “Your role, Dear Lady, the challenge which history has placed before you, is to deliver our nation from bondage. The only way that you can do this is to become the voice of a new vision of redemption. There is nothing else on your agenda as important as elaborating for the people, all our people, a vision of what our country could be, if re-founded on the principles of integrity, equality, security and popular sovereignty.”
Kamla did not understand a word that I had written then. But it is the same advice I would give today to Dr Rowley and Ms Beckles-Robinson. Both of them must understand that the goal they seek is not simply leadership of the PNM but leadership of our nation. And although we cannot vote in the party elections we, the rest of the citizens of this country, will be keenly following the contest to hear both what is said and what is not said.
And, notwithstanding his absolute certainties today as he is feeling the feeling, the candidates would do well to heed Prof Cudjoe’s words written back in 2011, that “Trinidad and Tobago does not owe Rowley (or Pennelope) the prime ministership or the PNM the leadership of the country.”
—Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics
and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.