Vote for change

Print edition : July 02, 2010

Kamla Persad-Bissessar makes a gesture of victory after winning the election, at the UNC party headquarters in Couva Town in Trinidad on May 24.-FREDERIC DUBRAY/AFP

THE Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago ushered in a new era on May 24 by electing its first woman Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, a person of Indian origin. She defeated three-term Prime Minister Patrick Manning in a closely fought election. The coalition of parties led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar had stressed its multiracial, inclusive character during the campaign to break out of Trinidad's usual style of politics, which is centred on the two dominant ethnic groups.

Facing a no-confidence motion on the grounds of corruption, Manning took the political gamble of calling midterm elections in the hope of catching the opposition parties unprepared. However, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, leader of the United National Congress (UNC), was able to stitch together a coalition of the five main opposition parties. She brought the Congress of the People, the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), the Movement for Social Justice and the Tobago Organisation of the People into a united coalition for People's Partnership.

Though several pre-election surveys had indicated that the UNC was ahead in the polls with Kamla Persad-Bissessar leading the popularity stakes, the landslide victory of the UNC-led coalition was unexpected. Manning's personal popularity was at a surprising low for a leader who had dominated Trinidad's politics for more than two decades and was known in the country as the maximum leader. Manning was Prime Minister from 1991 to 1995 and then again from 2002 to 2007. He won his third term in 2007.

The island nation, known for its calypsos, steel bands and carnival, has been affected by the international slowdown. It is a major exporter of natural gas and one of the main suppliers of gas to the United States. In the early 1990s, Manning initiated economic reforms and opened the economy to globalisation. His policies led to the development of the natural gas industry and attracted huge investments in the petrochemical sector. His People's National Movement (PNM) government created jobs and built housing for the poor. In recent years, however, a rising crime rate and allegations of corruption severely dented the party's image, causing it to lose many of its traditional supporters.

Manning's last years in power were so embroiled in scandals and charges of wasteful expenditure that the opposition parties were able to capitalise on the popular opinion against the PNM leader. The UNC alliance won 29 out of the 41 parliamentary seats in the elections. The PNM government held a 26-15 majority in the last Parliament.

Manning, who had faced criticism within his party for calling elections two years before they were due, conceded defeat on television late in the evening while ballots were still being counted, taking full responsibility for the defeat.

The campaign was a bitter one. Manning claimed that Kamla Persad-Bissessar was cracking under pressure and repeatedly described her as a pawn in the hands of a coterie, suggesting that the lady was not strong enough to rule. He said that the coalition was clueless about governing and the lady had no idea what she was doing.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar responded by stressing her own role as a woman. She used the popular song I am Woman as her campaign tune and made several references to her role as a mother and grandmother. In her victory speech, she said that she brought to the job her long political experience as well as her experience as a caring mother and grandmother and pledged that the campaign promises would become government policies. I can guarantee you a government that is accountable and transparent. You can hold me to the promise of the change which you so positively voted for tonight, she said.

The Prime Minister-elect showed her caring side when she ended her speech by appealing to the people who were celebrating after the results were declared: Please, let us not lose a single one of you tonight through recklessness and carelessness. Be responsible. Don't drink and drive.

The People's Partnership campaign focussed on the soaring crime rate in Trinidad, which has become a transit point for drugs from South America, and the growing corruption and wasteful expenditure in government while it ignored health care and infrastructure, issues that directly affect the people.

A campaign billboard in Port of Spain on May 23. Two high-profile summits held in the country drew criticism for wasteful expenditure in the run-up to the election.-JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

Trinidad and Tobago is one of the leading economies in the Caribbean region because of its oil and gas industry. The slowdown brought on by the international financial crisis together with the decrease in petroleum prices sharply affected the country. The gross domestic product (GDP) went down by 3.2 per cent last year, against an earlier forecast of 1.5 to 2 per cent. It was the first decline in GDP in 17 years for the oil-exporting country.

The critical energy sector also showed a slowdown of 5 per cent. The economic downturn exacerbated the frustration caused by corruption in public life.

There was increasing criticism of excessive expenditure on some projects, including the building of a palatial prime ministerial bungalow. Besides, there were two high-profile international summits held in Trinidad. There were commissions of inquiry instituted into charges of corruption. A recent charge related to contracts entered into by the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago.

The Summit of Americas held in Trinidad last year was attended by U.S. President Barack Obama. The Commonwealth Heads of Government summit brought together the Commonwealth leaders in a gala meeting. But the prestige of the events did not impress the people, and the general feeling was that the oil revenues were being wasted in expenditure that did not benefit the people.

As the Leader of the Opposition, Kamla Persad-Bissessar sought to position the UNC as a political party that held service to the people as its core concern, in the form of better health care, improved infrastructure and equity between ethnic groups. The People's Partnership coalition was projected as an inclusive alliance that represented trade unions as well as business sections, and all the ethnic and economic classes in the country. The coalition was expected to win some of the marginal seats, but in the event, it won several seats that have been PNM strongholds for decades. The ruling party lost five seats in the region that was counted as the PNM heartland, where the government had built housing estates. It showed that even PNM supporters had been attracted by the promise of change offered by the coalition.

Politics in Trinidad and Tobago has for long been divided along ethnic lines. Though the multiracial society is an integrated mix, ethnic differences get sharpened at election time. The PNM is dominated by Afro-Trinidadians (Trinidadians of African descent) and the UNC by Trinidadians of Indian descent.

The arrival of the neo-political group, the Congress of the People (COP), turned politics into a three-cornered fight, which helped the PNM get re-elected in 2007. A number of small parties cater to the interests of other minorities, while the relatively new COP draws its support mainly from the middle class.

The Tobago Organisation of the People is the party of the island of Tobago, whose people have long felt marginalised by Trinidadians. Trinidad and Tobago has a population of 1.3 million, 43 per cent of which is of African descent and 41 per cent of Indian origin, the rest being of Chinese, Lebanese, European and Amerindian descent. The majority of the Indo-Trinidadians are descendants of Indian indentured workers who were taken to the Caribbean islands to work on the sugarcane plantations.

The PNM has dominated the political scene since independence. Though the PNM government included a couple of East Indians in the Cabinet, Indians were politically marginalised and also kept out of top jobs. UNC founder Basdeo Panday broke the stranglehold of the PNM by gathering allies from other ethnic groups to become Prime Minister in 1995. His government was re-elected in 2000, but internal dissensions led to its fall in 2001.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar's campaign stressed her role as a woman, underlining her identity as a caring mother and grandmother.-JORGE SILVE/REUTERS

The elections in December 2001 resulted in a split verdict, with the UNC and the PNM winning 18 seats each in the 36-member House of Representatives. Manning formed the government, but it was an unworkable arrangement, and fresh elections had to be called within a year. The PNM won the next elections with a comfortable margin and re-established its hold on the country's politics. The number of seats in the House of Representatives was later increased to 41 to get rid of the earlier anomaly.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar, a politician of long standing, was Attorney General in the UNC government. She also served as Minister for Legal Affairs and of Education. Born on April 22, 1952, she studied law and got a master's degree in business administration from the University of the West Indies.

Her ancestors were among the Indian indentured workers brought to work on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean islands in the 19th and 20th centuries. She showed her mettle when she was elected Leader of the Opposition earlier this year. She became the first woman to head a political party in Trinidad after she successfully challenged her mentor, Basdeo Panday, for the leadership of the UNC.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar had been in the running for UNC leadership ever since Panday announced in 2005 that he was quitting active politics and would devote his time to social work. He, however, made a last-minute entry into the fray in the 2007 elections. After the election Panday once again talked of retiring from politics but then stayed on to ensure a peaceful transition.

A feisty politician who loved a good battle, Panday was not willing to go quietly, and it was not an easy victory for Kamla Persad-Bissessar. The party was deeply divided over the ageing leader's appeal and the need for a new charismatic and energetic leader. Finally, a virtual revolt by the younger members of the party forced a generational change in the party's leadership four months ago.

This fight for leadership led Manning to believe that the UNC would not be in a position to fight an early election. But Kamla Persad-Bissessar was able to sideline the old guard, energise the party and successfully negotiate with the COP and other parties to form the winning alliance.

After she was sworn in as Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persad-Bissessar listed out her government's priorities. Development, she said, would not be measured by tall buildings but by human development, safety and security, health and education and steps that would be taken to deal with social issues such as poverty, domestic violence and child abuse.

Stressing the inclusive nature of her coalition government, the newly elected Prime Minister said: Today, we leave the labels behind, we move forward as a nation, all committed to the same goal, a safer, more prosperous and just Trinidad and Tobago where we all have opportunity and equality, and so I say, no more labels, no more prefixes of Afro- and Indo- and North and South and East-West Corridor and Tobago. The election is over.

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