Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The making of our new President


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A few weeks ago I wrote an article in this space entitled "The making of our President". In the article I predicted that "given the track record of this present Government for making appointments to the most serious positions of state using party loyalty as the sole and exclusive criterion for such appointments, we (could) be certain that, at the end of the process, we (would) have a President, regardless of who the appointee might be, manifestly incapable of fulfilling the role."

I was wrong. Very wrong! Instead of nominating a "pliable and reliable partisan" our Prime Minister, in a move which certainly surprised me, announced the nomination of Justice Anthony Carmona to be our next President. Last Friday Mr Carmona was duly elected as our new President.

I do not know and have never met our new President but from all accounts he appears to be a man ideally suited for the role. He is possessed of significant legal and juridical expertise and, if we are to judge from his record thus far, will bring to the office of the presidency a much-needed sense of decorum, dignity and balance.

But this is not about our new President. It is about our Prime Minister and her stunningly uncharacteristic choice. When I made my earlier prediction it was against the background of a clear pattern of appointments by the Prime Minister and her government. As I had written in another article, "there is no pretence by this Government that it gives any serious thought to its appointments. The most incompetent of persons are being placed willy-nilly in positions of serious responsibility. The Prime Minister herself is on record as telling board appointees that the most important quality she demands of them is not competence or integrity but loyalty to the Government."

That is the pattern of appointments and there was little reason to believe, when I wrote the first article on the "Making of our President," that such a pattern would change. Indeed the Prime Minister was being publicly lobbied by some interest groups to appoint a "Hindu". Others thought that our President should be a "Woman". And we can only imagine what advice and suggestions she was being given by her closest advisors behind closed doors.

Yet, in spite of such strong importuning and contrary to the pattern she had established, our Prime Minister made a nomination which, for the first time, was not based upon the needs of party, or of race, or of religion, but of the country. What led to this reversal of the pattern and what does it portend for the future?

As far as the first question is concerned I would suggest that two developments, which occurred after I had written my first article but prior to her nomination for President, may well have significantly impacted on her choice. The first of these developments was the publication of the findings of a Market Facts and Opinions (MFO) survey.

The survey revealed that the Prime Minister had suffered a precipitous drop in her approval ratings over the last year. Her approval ratings, it showed, had declined from 54 per cent in 2011 to 38 per cent in 2012. Additionally the survey revealed strong dissatisfaction in the country with her Government's strategies in general.

The second development was the total and complete defeat suffered by the TOP, a partner in her Government, in the THA elections. There have been many and varied reasons advanced for the decimation of the TOP. But whatever the reasons, the fact of a 12 to 0 defeat tells a tale all by itself, particularly given that she was positioned at the front and centre of the TOP's campaign.

These two developments must have made it clear to the Prime Minister that she and her Government were headed down a slippery slope to disaster in the next general elections which, after all, are only two years away and that she needed to do something to arrest the decline.

The choice of a nominee for the office of the President presented itself as the first opportunity (and a fortuitously high profile opportunity to boot) to signal to the country a halt in the pattern of government conduct and a possible reversal of direction. There can be no doubt that she seized and played that opportunity brilliantly.

But what does it mean for the future? While the Prime Minister would certainly have enjoyed the widespread approbation she received after announcing her choice of nominee she must be aware that, by itself, this one act, as right as it was, does little to reverse the negative perceptions of herself and her Government which have accumulated over the last three years.

To reverse those perceptions and the steady decline in her approval ratings she would need to take a lot more decisions of consequence which are manifestly in the interests of the country and not motivated by party, race or religion. Whether she can do so is open to serious doubt. For while she has done well with her choice of a presidential nominee that decision does not directly threaten any real interests.

The decisions which she will be required to make on the economy, on matters of governance, on procurement, as just a few examples will certainly affect the pocketbooks and the pockets of power of a lot of people who are either in her Government or are supporters of her Government. It is in these instances that the true tests of her commitment to a new direction will be faced.

Any of such tests will incur tremendous political risks for the stability of her Government. For after three years in office those persons with interests inimical to the national interest have been able to firmly entrench themselves and there can be no change of direction without dealing, decisively, with such people.

In this regard the Prime Minister would have undoubtedly noted that among the findings of the MFO survey was that the vast majority of the population disapproved of the performance of two top ministers Jack Warner and Anand Ramlogan.

It might well be that the country will only accept the reality of a new direction in her leadership when it sees how she deals with these two. Until then, and while we welcome our new President, it is really a case of business as usual.

Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on

politics and society in Trinidad

and the wider Caribbean