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A good year for democracy

By Analysis by Ria Taitt Political Editor

The year just past was a good year for democracy.

 Trinidad and Tobago’s electorate had an unprecedented number of opportunities to exercise its franchise in 2013.

It was a year when Jack Warner created a political maelstrom, shaping events with his fluctuating political fortunes.

It was a year in which constituents in Chaguanas West showed that their love for their MP transcended all tribal ties and party loyalties.

It was a year in which the politicians under the sternest electoral tests, showed at times their worst colours as they demonstrated the depths to which they were prepared to sink on the hustings.

 It was a year when the decision to reject a former party chairman and senior minister as a candidate led to the formation of a new political party. 

It was a year when the People’s Partnership lost a significant proportion of the support it had at the start of its term, a mere three years ago, leading to the loss of four elections. 

However, it was clear by the end of the year- with the results of the local government election and the St Joseph by-election that the United National Congress (UNC) was recovering some of the ground it had lost and which had been reflected in the outcome of the Chaguanas West by-election. 

By November it was also equally clear that Jack Warner’s fortunes, which had risen so swiftly in July/August, had begun to decline.

And in 2013 as the UNC and Warner’s internecine struggle took centre stage, the People’s National Movement (PNM) marched to victory over and over and over again.

The year opened with the PNM’s most comprehensive victory—the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election in which it captured all 12 seats. 

In the THA campaign the UNC heavyrollers which included Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Minister Jack Warner, powered their way through, with Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) leader Ashworth Jack appearing to play a subservient role. The TOP leader was also hampered by allegations with respect to the construction of his home.

By contrast, the PNM allowed THA Chief Secretary Orville London to take precedence over the national leader, Tobago-born Keith Rowley. This reinforced the notion of a distinct and separate Tobago arm within the PNM.

 The PNM’s campaign was however marred by a racist statement from its candidate John Sandy. “If you bring the wrong (election) results, Calcutta ship is coming down for you! You must stop that ship! We must not allow that ship to sail and (if you) don’t want that ship to sail what you have to do? Vote for candidate Hilton,” Sandy told a crowd from a PNM platform. 

The UNC-led coalition slammed the PNM.

Rowley later decried the statement and Sandy apologised. And the PNM triumphed.

An upset Warner, then so firmly in the UNC’s corner castigated the Tobago electorate, upbraiding it for voting on the basis of “tribal instincts” and the fear that a “Calcutta ship was coming”. 

“It is the same reason why Laventille, with so little given by past PNM administrations would yet support the party regardless. The tribe is all they have been convinced is needed to be protected,” he said in a statement following the election.

Some analysts speculated that it was Warner’s failure to deliver the Tobago vote which began to raise questions of his usefulness and value within the UNC-led coalition. 

But the real chink in Warner’s political armour came in the form of persistent reports that the then National Security Minister was the subject of an investigation by FBI for a range of allegations, including tax fraud and money-laundering. Reports in the international media said Warner’s sons, Daryan was being questioned by the US authorities and was a cooperating witness in their investigations. The Prime Minister, forced to make a statement in the face of the growing reports, said she was seeking official corroboration of the reports. 

But the fatal wound to Warner’s ministerial career came in April when the Concacaf Integrity Committee, chaired by former Barbados Chief Justice, Sir David Simmons, found that he had “commingled” Concacaf funds with his own, had committed fraud through which he enriched himself, was deceptive and underhand on the issue of the ownership of the Centre of Excellence. 

The Prime Minister admitted to being shocked by the report’s revelations. She said if the allegations were true, “I have action to take”. 

The writing was on the wall. At a Cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s house days later—on April 21—Warner handed in his resignation which was duly accepted. Within four days he resigned his seat in Parliament.

He followed this up by a public meeting in which he declared quite defiantly that, having resigned from Parliament, he was seeking a fresh mandate. He would offer himself as the UNC candidate in the by-election. At that meeting Warner also began his mantra about a “cabal” within the UNC.

Eventually Warner was not selected by the UNC screening committee. And in reaction to this, he founded a party, the Independent Liberal Party (ILP), and contested the election under its banner. 

The stage was set for the high drama of a campaign between Jack and his former colleagues. The PNM was not a factor in this election. However this by-election held in a single constituency grabbed the national attention in the same way as a general election with the population enjoying ringside seats.

The UNC candidate Khadijah Ameen was irrelevant to the battle. As Warner himself said: “Male crapaud, female crapaud, it would be the same handful of salt.”

Allegations of corruption flew fast and furious from Warner, with his colleagues firing back with pre-action protocol letters. The UNC was on the defensive for most part. 

When the political dust settled on the night of July 29, Warner and the ILP trounced the UNC, winning every polling division, in a manner reminiscent of the THA 12-0 result. 

The significance of the Chaguanas outcome however was that it was the first time that the UNC had lost a seat in a heartland constituency. Warner was king. It was the lowest point for the UNC and its leader, the Prime Minister. Many analysts at the time contended that a fundamental change in the country’s body politic was in the making. The victory caused alarm within both the UNC and the PNM, stirring them from their relative complacency.

St Joseph MP Herbert Volney promptly resigned from the UNC and announced  he was joining the ILP. Vice President of the Senate, Lyndira Oudit, followed suit. There was some speculation about Winston “Gypsy” Peters, Anil Roberts and Clifton De Coteau possibly crossing the floor. 

The Prime Minister moved quickly. She wrote the Speaker Wade Mark pointing to Volney’s actions and citing the Crossing of the Floor provisions which stated that once an MP had resigned from the party on whose ticket he fought, his seat must be declared vacant. The law, up to this time, had never been successfully implemented. Speaker Mark created history. And declared the seat vacant.

Volney at first threatened to go to court to fight the decision. But rather than face an expensive legal battle, he eventually opted to surrender. Another unexpected by-election had to be held. 

But preceding this by-election, was the scheduled local government elections, which were due by the end of October. The Prime Minister bravely resisted efforts within her own party to postpone the election and named the date. 

Warner, who had stated during the by-election campaign that he would fight only a limited number of municipalities, changed his tune. Still euphoric over his spectacular Chaguanas West win, he went for the whole hog and announced that he would be contesting every seat. 

A real battle royale loomed among the three parties for the first time. In the local government election campaign, the UNC-led coalition, alarmed at the Chaguanas by-election outcome, changed tactics and went on the offensive against Warner’s ILP, targeting not only him, but his deputies, particularly Anna Deonarine.

Warner also had the misfortune of having a few of his candidates before the courts, with one candidate on gun-related charges. 

The UNC took advantage of this and dug up further ‘’dirt’’ on ILP candidates and officials. These nightly exposes from the UNC platform weakened the ILP considerably. Warner was being beaten at his own game. 

The UNC also resorted to a call for its traditional supporters to come home.

As the UNC and the ILP traded insults, the PNM campaign avoided this aspect and seemed to benefit. 

With a record voter turnout, the PNM took the lion share of corporations—eight of the 13 corporations and 85 of the 136 seats. It was the PNM and Rowley’s high point for the year. Coming after the Chaguanas West devastating defeat, the UNC celebrated its win of five (of the eight corporations it contested) and 44 seats, leading to the Prime Minister’s ecstatic scream: “The green man gone!” The UNC which later admitted it had expected another crushing defeat at the hands of Warner, was happy to stopped the green machine in its tracks. 

 The ILP won no corporations and ended up with three seats in the Chaguanas Borough and one on the Couva/Tabaquite corporation.  

A post-election contest took place. The Chaguanas Borough which had initially resulted in a three-way tie between the parties, was eventually captured by the UNC, after an ILP defection. An angry Warner labelled the ILP councillor Faaiq Mohammed a “judas”, accusing him of selling out for pieces of silver. Mohammed countered by filing a pre-action protocol as well as strenuous denials of the accusation in the media. It was the lowest point for Warner.

The  other significant thing about the local government election result was the virtual eradication of the Congress of the People (COP)  in all five regional corporations that it had fought. 

The St Joseph by-election campaign was only two weeks long. But it was a long two weeks. The UNC hammered its call to supporters to call back home. This campaign however was more subdued, less dramatic. There were less revelations and allegations. There were many walkabouts as parties focused on constituency related concerns. The candidates—PNM’s Terrence Deyalsingh, UNC’s Ian Alleyne and ILP’s Om Lalla  did a lot of ground work and there was a lot of one-on-one and face-to-face communication with constituents.

The UNC however faced allegations of misusing State resources to prop up its candidate who was seen boasting in ads and posters about his  success in bringing 23 State-funded projects to the constituency. 

 Alleyne’s promises failed to stop the PNM’s winning streak. The party took St Joseph but the UNC put up a creditable showing, losing by approximately 670 votes. The ILP’s game appeared to be over. The party ran a distant third.

2013 was an important year for all the political parties. The UNC’s “come back home appeal” brought back its base. The PNM began its electoral recovery from the abyss of May and July 2010. The ILP which began with an electoral bang, ended with a whimper and as the year closed began to cast about for new political alliances- groping towards some  “grand alliance” to the virtually defunct NAR and to old associates such as Basdeo Panday and Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj. 

Warner may have energised the political arena in 2013 but at the end of the year, he appeared to be a colossus who had stood on feet of clay.

And in all of this political drama, the COP, so critical to the victories of the Partnership of May 2010 and July 2010, seemed in 2013 to have lost its way. 

2014 will be another electoral year—except it would be the internal elections of the principal parties—the UNC, the PNM and the ILP. 

Another interesting year is undoubtedly ahead. 

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