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The Power of Weakness

By Sunity Maharaj

 With the dismissal of Glenn Ramadharsingh, Kamla Persad-Bissessar has launched her campaign for re-election. In the few months of the term left to her, what has been lacking in leadership for four years will have to be made up for by a show of prime ministerial power to the maximum strength of West Indian Westminster. 

As she moves to regroup and relaunch, we can expect a consolidation of power so personal that no head that threatens hers will be safe.

In short order, anyone who harbours the illusion of being the power behind the throne will discover what PM power can do. 

Where her priority in administration has been to protect the mirage of partnership, the re-election campaign will turn on the option of division as, one by one, she distances herself from elements within her administration in pleading for a second chance. What irony it will be if her strongest asset in seeking the electorate’s forgiveness turns out to be the perception of her as a woman weakened by controlling, agenda-driven men, making weakness her greatest strength. And why not? It has worked for her before. 

In 2007, with a little help from Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman no Cry’, she so skillfully parlayed her accommodation of the Panday-Maharaj hegemony into a tale of female martyrdom that by 2010, the self-destruction of Basdeo Panday and Patrick Manning could be recast as a victory for woman warriorhood.

The record should be a warning against rushed conclusions about the impact of Persad-Bissessar’s perceived weakness. Imbedded in it is a tender trap designed to lure strongmen leaders to their political death.  In this climate, the orthodox imagery of strength- tough-talking, no nonsense and aggressive- could easily backfire by swinging the sympathy vote towards a leader expressing heartfelt apologies while running the money.  

Distrustful of central power since Eric Williams, the electorate has been increasingly decentralising power by its own hand, using the tactics of protest, defiance and self-alienation from the political process. With Persad-Bissessar’s administration, a new marker has been crossed. Never before has the tail so vigorously wagged the dog. Despite the couple of bullies in the Cabinet who would seem to do as they please, this Government has remained insecure enough to set its daily agenda by the news headlines, deepening the role of the media as a substitute for the people in the political process.Indeed, with the countdown to elections, we’re beginning to see the outlines of a charm offensive on the media which would include the mamaguy change to the defamation law which removes criminal libel while keeping it fully intact and assorted carrots in the works.

If in 2007 she turned to Marley for “No Woman, No Cry”, and in 2010, she duct-taped the makeshift partnership with his “One Love”, in 2015 she’s sure to be singing his “Redemption Song”.

Redemption is an alluring image and few politicians have had as much experience and success at milking it as Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

Her still decent approval ratings, though seriously eroded by one misstep after another, describes the psychology of a people whose distrust of power makes them a soft touch for power dressed up in a velvet glove.

With a year to go, the storyline is all but written and ready to roll. If she is to rise from the ashes of a burnt-out administration, Persad-Bissessar will have to flip the script by which she has governed so far.  Holding the partnership together will not be as important as getting the electorate to buy into her as a leader willing to throw herself at their mercy, willing to listen, willing to apologise, willing to give whatever is asked of her. In this context, her decision to hold on to the portfolio of People and Social Development makes perfect sense, even if completely unnecessary in her high profile position as PM. 

Persad-Bissessar’s re-invention will come with consequences for the group around her. None is safe. If she needed them to hold her Government together for four years, in surviving the fifth she might evaluate the option of distancing herself from many. Successive polls would have already told her that in the popularity stakes, her ministers hardly register a blip on the radar of public admiration. 

As clear-cut as the challenge might seem at this stage, however, there are many variables way outside her control and still others beyond her demonstrated capacity. The clarity and single-minded focus needed to re-incarnate herself as a capable leader in seeking a second term, has not been evident in her management of the country’s affairs. Throughout her term, she has been most alive and comfortable on the political platform. It is her natural habitat. As much as she might recognise the importance of re-invention at this stage, there is no magic wand that will, overnight, transform her into a leader in charge of her country’s affairs, managing it with an aplomb rooted in knowledge. That ship has sailed. But Persad-Bissessar cannot be ruled out. There are other routes to the destination. Whether she gets there or not will, however, depend on how effectively she uses the power of the PM to re-configure our imagination about the nature of power itself.

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