By Raffique Shah
August 08, 2022
Continuing where I ended last Sunday, by the turn of the millennium and the century, the Opposition United National Congress had positioned itself to capitalise on the vulnerabilities of the People’s National Movement, which had been weakened by the mass movement of 1970 (Black Power) that was driven largely by the children and grandchildren of the PNM.
The once-dominant party had also lost its leader, Dr Eric Williams, who died in office in March at age 69. His death, in a crucial general election year, could have provided the party with a fillip to its flagging fortunes, if it was exploited astutely, or serve as the death knell if the new managers failed the test of survival without Dr Williams.
What happened was a near-miracle: it was almost as if Dr Williams died to give new life to the party. The men pulling the strings from behind the curtain—Ellis Clarke, Francis Prevatt, John O’Halloran, and a small clique, defied the populist view that either Kamal Mohammed or Errol Mahabir, both deputy leaders, should be named the new leader.
There was also the view, from influential members of the clique, that the party and country weren’t ready for an Indian prime minister.
The third deputy, George Chambers, was seen as clean, though his leadership qualities were questionable. He was up to the challenge, though, even as Karl Hudson-Phillips’ resignation from the PNM and formation of his new party, the ONR, which attracted several frontline PNM activists, seemed set for the kill when the general election was called before the end of the year.
Chanting “not ah damn seat for them” Chambers lead a re-energised PNM to a resounding victory over the ONR and Basdeo Panday’s ULF. The latter two could not find common ground to fight the PNM, each seeing himself as the new prime minister. Chambers led as best he could, but with oil prices dipping and the economy going into recession, his days, and the PNM’s were numbered. Chambers did nothing to stem the “freeness” make-work programmes, corruption and other ills that contradicted his post-Williams war cry, “fete done, back to wuk”.
In fact, the fete continued even when the Treasury was running on empty. Like those who came after him, he did not have the fortitude to call halt to the corruption and wastage that was dragging the country into the IMF pit.
I should note, too, that very critical to the demise of the PNM was the emergence of a “third force”, a liberal-right amalgam that rallied around a leader who promoted such ideology, Karl Hudson-Phillips and the ONR in 1981-1986, and Winston Dookeran’s COP in 2007.
The ULF/UNC never won a general election on its own. However, it was always the dominant party in all such combined assaults on the PNM. It was also notorious for “mashing up” such alliances of convenience—a move that has favoured the survival of the PNM, which re-emerged from a 33-3 thrashing by the four-party coalition, the NAR.
The coalitions that temporarily benefited from the PNM’s cyclical demise blew their Lotto-like winnings like many of their real-life counterparts—partying, wasting the nation’s revenues and, worst of all, engaging in banditry, depleting the Treasury as if it was either that or leaving the loot for other political bandits to benefit.
Thus far in our post-Independence political history, far fewer alleged political bandits aligned with the PNM have been charged by independent bodies, such as the DPP and the police, with fraud and outright corruption.
In fact, as we gear up for the 2025 general election, there are huge question marks over key personnel in the UNC, and leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar having led the party into more losses than wins refuses to even consider the word “resign” as escape mechanism that might work for the party.
Beyond that, new players have inserted themselves on the national political landscape. Prime among them is Watson Duke, who seized the Tobago House of Assembly from the PNM with consummate ease. He is now inserting himself into the politics of Trinidad which he hopes to win and become king of Trinidad and Tobago.
That is easier said than done. But don’t tell Duke that. He is convinced that he is the new “miracle man” and his presence in the general election in Trinidad is vital to the defeat of the PNM which, admittedly, is standing on soft ground. The coming elections will be the toughest Dr Rowley will face since he became leader of the PNM.
The nation’s economy is in dire straits and he must take drastic measures to keep the ship of State afloat. That he has steered us through the stormy weather of a global pandemic that has negatively impacted almost every country in the world, and has brought us to relative safety, counts for nothing when the purchasing power of people’s pay packets declines by 30 to 40 per cent.
This country’s electorate is unforgiving.