COP LEADER: Prakash Ramadhar

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Coalition of twists and turns

By Kevin Baldeosingh

The signs of strain started from 2010, when the People's Partnership was voted into office on May 24 with 29 seats to the People's National Movement's (PNM) 12. The first issue had to do with the spoils of office, with the Congress of the People (COP) complaining about appointments for its members to State boards. Similar concerns continued in 2011, with the COP now focusing on the Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) and, in June, about the changes from a Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

According to American political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, catering to a winning coalition is the core principle of politics. Box 1 lists three of the basic lessons drawn from research on common political strategies in different types of regimes, from military juntas to democracies.

Source: The Dictator's Handbook,

by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

But it was only in June 2012 that one of the five coalition partners decided to leave the Government. However, the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) was also the party with the least to lose by leaving, as compared to the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) and the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP). The MSJ had one representative in Cabinet in the person of Labour Minister Errol McLeod, but the former president general of the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union had contested the Pointe-a-Pierre seat on a United National Congress ticket and, in January, he stepped down as MSJ leader.

New leader David Abdulah, the education officer of the OWTU, gave an assurance that the change would have no negative repercussions on the People's Partnership. "When comrade McLeod speaks in Parliament he is speaking as a member of the national executive and has the support of the executive of the MSJ," Abdulah had said.

Two months later, in the midst of bitter wage disputes between trade unions and the Government, the MSJ issued a statement demanding that the Government address ten pressing issues. Again, distribution of the spoils of office was at the core of the conflict, with "Fair share of State resources to communities and the equitable distribution of jobs" being the second issue highlighted. Four of the other ten concerns had to do with trade unions' agenda: salary negotiations, contract labour in the State sector, privatisation, and labour law reform.

By June, the MSJ had broken off from the Partnership. In a statement, Abdulah explained that the party had joined with the People's Partnership to bring about "progressive changes in governance", but this had been thwarted by powerful elements in the UNC. "For them it is not about changing the system of governance, but rather changing faces because it is 'we time now'," he said.

Meanwhile, the second main partner in the coalition, the COP, had had a major blowout with the leading UNC when in March former COP member Marlene Coudray put herself forward, with the support of core UNC members, to contest the post of deputy political leader of the UNC in the party's internal election. Then-COP chairman Joseph Toney in a press release said, "Actions like these will have the effect of creating mistrust among the partners of the People's Partnership and seriously erode the strength of the coalition."

By the end of the month, COP leader Prakash Ramadhar had issued an ultimatum to the UNC, saying the COP would "revisit" its position in the coalition if the principles of the Fyzabad Declaration were not adhered to. In the end, Coudray was elected one of the UNC's three deputy political leaders, and COP member Navi Muradali replaced her as San Fernando mayor. Ramadhar, however, never explained if this was part of the resolution reached between the UNC and the COP.

There was then a two-month respite till the MSJ's break in June. But the coalition seemed to bond even more strongly after that, and there were no public disagreements until September, when the Section 34 scandal broke. On September 12, hours before Parliament convened in an emergency session to repeal the clause, the COP issued a statement calling for all the persons involved to "not be allowed any function on behalf of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago". Ramadhar also broke ranks with his Cabinet colleagues by issuing a mea culpa, but did not speak of withdrawing from the coalition despite calls from several quarters for him to do so. And, even as the Section 34 issue continued to engage public discourse, the Wayne Kublalsingh hunger strike brought on further fracturing, with former COP leader Winston Dookeran, who had maintained a studied silence since stepping down, publicly calling on Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar to meet with Kublalsingh – a call also echoed by NJAC.

Given these continual eruptions, how likely is it that the coalition would last until the next general election due in 2015? Bueno de Mesquita has devised a technique for estimating the favoured policy position of people in different scenarios.

Figure 1 uses a crude variation of his approach. Absolute support for the coalition is rated at 100 and absolute opposition at 0. Influence of relevant individuals and groups is estimated from zero to 100, with higher numbers representing greater influence. "Salience" estimates, on the same scale, people's commitment to their position. These numbers give a weighted average of 40.5 per cent support for the coalition—i.e. most influential individuals and groups want the coalition to fall apart. However, the odds of this are only slightly more than even, which means that persons who are more invested in the coalition are unlikely to withdraw from it.

The betting is therefore 3 to 2 in favour of two possible scenarios occurring before May 2015: (1) NJAC and the TOP abandon the coalition; or (2) the COP alone withdraws from the Partnership, but most of its six MPs stay in the Cabinet.

Rules for political survival • Politics is about getting and keeping political power. It is not about the general welfare of "We the people". • Political survival is best assured by depending on few people to attain and retain office. • The top leadership has more discretion on how to spend revenues when the small group of cronies knows that there is a large pool of people waiting on the sidelines to replace them in gorging at the public trough.

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