By Tony Fraser
March 28, 2012 – guardian.co.tt
Austin “Jack” Warner has made the crossing over the political, ethnic, racial and geographic Rubicon—from the east-west corridor to Caroni—and has done so in spectacular fashion. Without the endorsement of the hierarchy of the United National Congress, indeed, against its wishes, Warner sauntered into the heartland of the UNC to capture the chairmanship of the party and by an extraordinarily wide margin—12,695 to 656 votes.
Warner has made the political crossing on his own steam and this is unlike on the two occasions when he won the Chaguanas West constituency and the chairmanship (once) under the sponsorship of Panday and Persad-Bissessar. On the weekend, he defied the political directorate and its obvious candidate, Ashvani Mahabir (who was really a political pawn) and captured the support of the voting UNC membership, as he boasted during the campaign he would do.
The hierarchy could not have owned-up to supporting Mahabir as defeat would have reflected directly and negatively on it, inclusive of the political leader, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar. Moreover, to give support to Mahabir would have made Neemakarams out of the political leader and the Nationalists for opposing the man who more than any single individual was responsible for the party and the coalition successfully coming together in 2010. To have turned back on Jack would have had negative consequences within the UNC and coalition.
However, the point needs to be made that Warner has not slain the dragon of race, just made some space for himself. Question is though: what are the factors that allowed Warner, a highly controversial figure locally and internationally, to make such a breakthrough in a T&T political culture that is solidly grounded in race, ethnicity, even in geography?
First, Jack Warner has shown himself to be the kind of people’s representative that individual and national constituencies always hope they would have. Inside and outside of electioneering seasons, Warner has demonstrated deep interest in the welfare of people; his supporters voted for him in a manner that says they are sure that he has brought enhancement to their lives.
It must also mean something to his supporters that Warner has stood with them in the face of at times hostile comment and action from what in political terms would be described as his “natural constituency,” that of Afro-Trini-dad, among whom would be those who believe that he had no business being so immersed in the Indo-Trinidad community.
His demonstrated loyalty to the UNC, notwithstanding the very open conflict he has had with the hierarchy of the party and Government, has been taken as his intention to save the party and Gov- ernment from fracturing along its political fault lines. Beyond those very practical acts of caring and assistance, Warner’s backing of Kamla Persad-Bissessar to successfully oust Panday from the leadership of the UNC and to eventually capture the 2010 general election and retrieve the party from another long stint in opposition, is remembered in the UNC community.
During the campaign Warner constantly reminded his supporters and others of that contribution to the UNC and PP Government. Very significantly, too, the UNC voters separated their religious beliefs and practices from their politics and ignored completely the attempt by the secretary general of the Maha Sabha, Sat Maharaj, to influence them to vote for Mahabir.
As government minister, Warner must have impressed the UNC membership with the several actions he has initiated to spread government infrastructure outside of Port-of-Spain and into places such as Chaguanas. In doing so, Warner must have been seen to be rebalancing what the UNC considers to have been decades of neglect and discrimination against towns and villages in which Indo-Trinidad predominates.
The UNC support base has also been willing to remain faithful to Warner, notwithstanding the mountain of allegations made against him during the decades that he has held very senior positions in the world football body, Fifa. As is well known, those allegations include that he had worked in tandem with Moham-med bin Hammam to persuade the Caribbean Football Union members, contrary to Fifa regulations, to vote against Fifa president, Sepp Blatter.
His support base within the UNC has obviously taken the decision that whatever Warner is alleged to have done in his Fifa positions had no relation to them and their welfare. And they had the guidance of their political leader and prime minister as she adopted a similar position—that was perhaps an unwitting provision of an endorsement of Warner as being fit to hold high office within party and government.
So whether or not members of the core leadership of the party and Government may wish to rid themselves of Warner, the election results have signalled to them that they have to live with him. Notwithstanding that reality, there are undoubtedly those who are still hoping for some external disaster to cripple Warner—have him fall on his sword, perhaps—as a means of getting rid of him.
But with a general election scheduled to be contested in two and a half years, the UNC’s political leadership has the choice of making-up with Jack or run the political risk of not having his campaigning ability and his resources. Fact is, hardcore UNC has not been able to win without the organisational campaign support of the likes of Warner, Ramesh Maharaj and the coalition of parties which came together in 2010.
Warner, on the other hand, has openly expressed his support and belief in the party and the Prime Minister; he cannot be seen to be going back on that commitment. The very poor voter turnout, estimated at 20 per cent and the glaring inadequacies of the electoral system are not surprising. They are indicative of the nature of the UNC: a political base organised to support a maximum leader and to subserve the interest of a tribe.
Warner’s everlasting contribution to the UNC and to the political party culture would be if he conceives of the value of moving the UNC beyond the messianic leadership model, which gives power to a leader and an inner circle who manipulate the support base for their benefit. That is surely one way to slay the dragon of race-based politics.