By Raffique Shah
April 22, 2012
THE imbroglio in the People’s Partnership Government prompted me to examine more closely how and why the People’s National Movement (PNM) has been central to the electoral politics of this country for more than 50 years. This may sound like flawed logic. But I noted that several of the principal players in the People’s Partnership impasse have said that whatever their differences or their failure to settle them, the parties that form the current government must stay together to prevent the PNM from regaining power.
In other words, their main motivation for not falling apart, not tearing into each other, is not what they can do for the country, but the lurking presence of the PNM waiting to pounce on any weakness in the Partnership armour.
I imagine uppermost in their minds must be the manner in which the PNM rebounded in 1991, turning around its 33-3 mauling in 1986 to a 21-15 victory. The PNM would repeat this phoenix-like performance in 2002 following two cardinal errors by Patrick Manning and Basdeo Panday. The former had stupidly called early elections in 1995, which ended in a draw with the United National Congress (UNC), but which he lost when Arthur NR Robinson pledged his two National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR)-Tobago seats to Panday.
The latter (some say they are political-Siamese-twins… they even “died” together in 2010) squandered the goodwill he had won by 2000 (51 per cent of votes cast, 19 seats) by calling snap elections in 2001, which, ironically, also ended in a draw (18-18). Robinson, whom Panday had earlier elevated to President to remove him as an obstacle, would exact revenge by calling on Manning and the PNM to form a government. In the 2002 elections, called to break the deadlock, the PNM won 51 per cent of the votes cast and 20 seats.
Without delving further into further details on the emergence of the Congress of the People (COP) in the 2007 elections that gave the PNM a minority win (in terms of votes cast), which paved the way for the formation of the Partnership and the third defeat of the PNM in 2010, I need to note some salient points.
In the run-up to the 1995 elections that gave Panday his first taste of real power, he had wooed and won the public endorsement from Brian Kuei Tung, Steve Ferguson and Ishwar Galbaransingh. Kuei Tung had been the PNM Minister of Trade (as a senator) from 1992 to October 1995—the eve of elections. Although I cannot say for sure, perception was that Ferguson and Galbaransingh had been PNM big wigs until 1995. I was present (as a journalist) at a public meeting at Gasparillo in the heat of the campaign, when, amid a fanfare usually reserved for emperors, and a deafening roar of approval from the large UNC crowd, the trio made a grand entry onto the stage. Panday hailed their “conversion” from the PNM, trumpeting it as a kind of Saul-to-Paul miracle for the UNC.
As if that PNM-UNC symbiosis did not stink to high heavens, shortly thereafter Panday welcomed two elected PNM MPs—Vincent Lasse and Rupert Griffith—who chose to cross the floor, presumably on the promise of high office. Panday may well claim those defections were political masterstrokes.
Therein lies the conundrum that faces the electorate, which, in most instances, is the co-architect of its political woes. If the PNM is all things evil, how do you rationalise cussing frontline PNMites today, and embracing them like brothers tomorrow? I ask for the thousandth time, who is fooling whom?
Let me now fast-forward to the current impasse in the Partnership, and why I think the coalition is travelling the same road its failed predecessors did. I should say there are, without doubt, some very talented persons in the Partnership, some genuine patriots for whom country comes before self. In terms of policy differences between the PNM and the Partnership, there are precious few.
The Partnership’s Medium-Term Plan encompasses some visionary ideas; but then, so did the PNM’s Vision 2020. Implementation is, however, quite another horse.
The Partnership rode to power partly on the promise to address environmental concerns over plants like the PNM’s aluminium smelter, and on diversification of the economy away from oil and gas dependency.
So the smelter went, but Carisal stays. Mark you, the same environmentalists who mounted the Partnership platform in 2010 are not even saying, “Stop Carisal.” They are simply asking for the plant to be relocated to a non-residential area. The Government ignores them—much like the PNM did when there were protests against the smelter and other heavy industries.
The eTecK Tamana Park is scaled back by the Parnership, but we are told that Saudi Arabia’s SABIC is coming with a multi-billion-dollar downstream gas complex that would dwarf everything we have at Point Lisas. Where is the additional gas coming from? What about reckless quarrying that is taking a lasting toll on the nation’s landscape, its water-courses and aquifers? In its desperation to find more oil, the Government is considering mining tar sands, which is the dirtiest and most damaging process in oil recovery.
Other than a few “goodies” that the Partnership Government has doled out—enhanced pensions, improved social security—really, what is the difference between the Partnership and the PNM? Even the spectre of corruption that haunted the PNM during its many years in office now hangs ominously over the Partnership. Allegations of nepotism run wild. And while the Government’s frontline looks more balanced than the PNM’s from an ethnic standpoint, many would say that is deceptive.
So as they grapple with power-sharing issues that have the potential to torpedo the Partnership, the PNM casts a crooked shadow over a coalition that held out hope to so many a mere two years ago. The more things change…