By SUNITY MAHARAJ
Once again, another administration is learning the hard lesson that it is far easier to win an election than it is to govern.
Wiles and guile might get you through the door, but it takes new politics and real mastery of the challenge to transform the condition of a country and build a nation. Unless you are the PNM with no investment in changing Eric Williams’ 25-year programmatic legacy, chances are you’ll arrive in office with little more than the survival skills and political flexibility required to cut deals and dethrone the incumbent. For all the brain power and self-righteous indignation, T&T’s parties in opposition have repeatedly demonstrated an unpreparedness for running the country. But of the three who have made it to the seat of power- the NAR, the UNC and the People’s Partnership- the PP seems by far the least prepared.
Supporters will argue that, of all three, the PP had the shortest time to prepare for office, but how does one explain the incoherence and lack of direction by a successor party of the UNC and NAR, both of which have had the experience of governing the country? Somebody clearly was out to lunch when class was in session.
On the face of it, the Persad-Bissessar cabinet is no more deficient than any other in terms of its share of reasonably intelligent, well-meaning people – bar some madcaps, loose cannons and rank novices. So, then, what could account for this crippling sense of instability and lack of direction that is rapidly fuelling a loss of public confidence in its ability to lead the country out of the morass left behind by Patrick Manning’s administration?
The PP’s grapevine is full of talk about clashing egos and personal agendas, but even if this were so, it would be purely symptomatic. The real source of the problem could only be incoherence at the very heart of the government- a problem that cannot be solved by PR, workshops, seminars or professional consultants.
Persad-Bissessar’s government is not unique in its lack of self-knowledge but it has much less excuse than ANR Robinson had in 1988 when he thought the NAR could survive- and even thrive- with the departure of Basdeo Panday and the ULF. It also has less excuse than Basdeo Panday had in 1999 when he succumbed to the illusion that the UNC could supplant the DAC in Tobago.
And now, it’s Persad-Bissessar’s turn.
The politics of her succession to office was even more complex than those of Robinson and Panday. They came to office as out and out coalitions of parties- the ULF, DAC, ONR and Tapia that formed the NAR government in 1986 and the UNC-DAC coalition that brought Panday to office in 1995.
In 2010, Persad-Bissessar rose to office on the strength of a coalition that was far more complex: the UNC, COP, TOP, MSJ, NJAC- and Jack Warner, the last of which is such an elusive political concept that the PP could pretend it did not exist. On paper, the leaders of the PP are Persad-Bissessar, Dookeran, Ashford Jack, McLeod and Daaga. In real political terms, however, its leaders are Persad-Bissessar, Dookeran, Ashford Jack and Warner since the MSJ and NJAC have functioned well below the level of aggression required for real representation of interests. If, however, the PP were ever to engage in a top level caucus designed to get its government on track, at the minimum, these are the six people who would need to go behind closed doors and begin to deal- as equals. Not the PM’s appointed men and women.
No one should hold their breath, though.
In the first place, the Westminster system is not conducive to coalition politics. The only important person in the cabinet is the Prime Minister. The concept of sharing power is alien—everyone serves at the PM’s discretion.
Secondly, in parliament, the colonial legacy reduces elected MPs to the role of representing the government/ or the opposition party, and not the people- which means that parliament becomes an extension of government for the ruling party.
Thirdly, the political culture breeds insecurity, not confidence.
Persad-Bissessar’s missteps reflect all three.
In office, she has slipped easily into the role of the Westminster Prime Minister, innocent to the dangers of ignoring the key responsibility for hammering out a relevant decision-making framework for a coalition government. Whether she is party to it or not, she has certainly not objected to the Cult of Kamla that her PR team has been assiduously cultivating over the past seven months, resulting in her image towering far and above her partners’, helped along by her personal political style of meet-and-greet.
In emerging from the leadership pack, she has pulled a new team from her cabinet, going so far in a moment of temporary madness, as to anoint Roodal Moonilal as a desired successor.
With the Partnership increasingly existing in name only, the COP and Warner have been left with no choice but to begin looking after their own interests.
The COP has clearly read the move and is preparing for the coming round by strengthening its presence on the ground and raising its profile as it prepares for life after the PP.
Warner is a more intriguing prospect. Given his modus operandi and guerilla skills, being out of the constraints of government would actually serve him well. (One could almost hear him pleading for public forgiveness for having saddled the country with “that Government” and pledging to put things right “if it’s the last thing I do before I die!”)
If Persad-Bissessar sticks to her current game plan, it is not inconceivable that Warner and the COP could supplant the PNM as the real opposition to her government. It would be easy for her to understand the COP, but does she understand the potential consequences of having Jack Warner, champion of her candidacy, on the outside?
Warner is astute enough to have read the play from early. His communications nominee for the PM’s office was rebuffed; controversial information regarding his decision-making as a Minister is routinely leaked and he took some public dressing down over his FIFA conflict and the Airport lighting contract.
In turn, he has responded with a play of his own. In the unfolding test of wills, Warner has thrown the gauntlet down to the PM over the CAL dispute; of late he has resurfaced on the unitedvoices weblog, resuming direct contact with the UNC base and, for good measure, his son has been deployed to the PNM.
Against this background, Basdeo Panday is beginning to emerge as champion of the UNC’s superior record in office and of the workers’ cause, while Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj remains available for legal challenge against the government. With the COP’s renewed mobilization, has Persad-Bissessar calculated the possibility of a UNC challenge to the PP government if Warner left the government? After all, yesterday is yesterday and today is today!
Instead of planning a Moonilal succession, the PM would be better advised to abandon the delusions of being a Westminster prime Minister and return to the first order of business by pulling the PP leadership together – including the TOP’s Jack, Dookeran, Warner, McLeod and Daaga- to negotiate a strategy for leading the country out of the enveloping state of crisis.
The electorate should have demanded this in the campaign but stopping Manning was an understandable priority. Instead of wailing in disappointment now, constituents should demand an urgent and meaningful return to the drawing board by the leadership of the People’s Partnership. But that would require new politics, wouldn’t it?