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Why new COP chair seeks, needs new deal

The May 2010 triumph of the People's Partnership looks sometimes like an experience of outrageous fortune for the Congress of the People (COP). With a handful of its members in the Cabinet headed by United National Congress political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the COP is not allowed to forget its junior status in the coalition government.

Never more so than when actions are taken or decisions made in the name of the Partnership, that prove unpopular or otherwise politically insupportable. After the Section 34 calamity, COP leader Prakash Ramadhar publicly took the blows, and apologised. The COP, if it had its way, may presumably have handled things better than, or differently from, the UNC-dominated leadership of the government.

But that is if. As part of a team bound by conventions of Cabinet solidarity, the COP element is obliged to swallow hard and go along, or to give it all up and return to the unenviable certainties of opposition.

Some COP supporters have evidently lost faith in any ostensible long haul leading to the commanding heights in its own name. Former leader Winston Dookeran suffered from this requirement of serving two masters: the Government in which he sits, and the members' expectations for a trustee of their aspirations toward "new politics".

The COP had made a brave bid for office on its own in the 2007 general elections. Having gained a respectable 148,345 votes, but no parliamentary seats, the COP then sought a way to exercise critical political influence, if not yet a commanding share of power. That way turned out to be the building of an opposition alliance.

It was the COP, then led by Winston Dookeran, which had laid the groundwork for what in April 2010 became the People's Partnership. Having ditched the spent force of Basdeo Panday, the UNC was able to exert unstoppable clout in the shape and content of the then urgently needed electoral alliance.

The rest is unhappy history for the COP, now targeted by slings and arrows aimed at what looks like a weakened link in the Partnership. Enter Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, newly risen party chairman, making a brave bid to rewrite the terms of engagement.

"There has to be room to appreciate our new politics," she said, calling for agreed guidelines permitting "Cabinet ministers from different parties to agree to disagree." It's the only basis on which, she argues, "a coalition can work in T&T, if the COP is to have its separate identity and independent voice''.

Compared to the experience from 2010, this is indeed a "new politics". The danger is that the COP membership may find it too little too late, while the dominant UNC may find it demands far too much, and out of time. The new chairman's "new politics" needs and deserves all the luck the COP has so far lacked.

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