?Luckily for PNM House leader Colm Imbert the rules of the House of Representatives do not allow MPs to eat in the Parliament chamber during proceedings. And Imbert may also be thankful that UNC MP Jack Warner got a new job as UNC chief whip yesterday. If not, Imbert may have been forced by UNC MPs to eat his words when Imbert–during last month's property tax debate–had told UNC's Kamla Persad-Bissessar that her colleague Basdeo Panday would give her a "licking" in the UNC's January 24 election. It is now history that Imbert's "prediction" was wrong. But yesterday's drama in the House when Persad-Bissessar got cracking–appointing Warner as chief whip–distracted sufficiently from Imbert enough to save him from any eating (of words or otherwise). The many ironies of the historic January 24 routing saw Panday outfoxed by (some of) his own, but intent on battling (still) in his remaining two years as Couva North MP.
Setting the scene for shifting ground ahead in local politics. With a new inexperienced executive largely comprising people who do not sit in Parliament (as the previous team did), simmering internal issues and the ruling PNM girding for offensive, the task before Persad-Bissessar's UNC is large and the time in which to do it is small. Presenting a substantial challenge. The PNM is already moving in the current gap, undertaking walkabouts in Opposition seats–including Panday's on Monday–to take advantage of an Opposi- tion struggling to regroup after a bruising election and bloodletting expected to continue. Indeed, the fallout on the UNC side from the surprise of Warner's appointment yesterday was so obvious that Manning was comfortable enough to have been as generous with his comments (mid-debate) about Panday and Persad-Bissessar.
Jeopardising her support?
Persad-Bissessar's appointment of Warner has swiftly proclaimed her authority, further putting the squeeze on Panday psychologically–and literally–where House seating was concerned. Fifa vice-president Warner, a workaholic, might waste no time in cracking the whip to whip the UNC into shape as an attractive political investment. However, he may have to juggle duties with this year's World Cup work and–with limited Parliamentary experience–may require a crash course in procedures. His appointment may, as well, have repercussions on Persad-Bissessar's bid to become Opposition Leader where some MPs are concerned. Today's situation is a far cry from 2006 when she was made Opposition Leader–over then UNC leader Winston Dookeran–with Panday's sanction and Warner's assistance. Persad-Bissessar now requires the support of seven of the UNC's 15 MPs for the post.
The UNC's new executive on Wednesday had proposed writing MPs recommending that they support her for Opposition Leader, an executive spokesman said Thursday. However Persad-Bissessar, who recused herself from discussions, subsequently asked to be given a chance to speak to her fellow MPs before the letters were sent, they added. She was given until yesterday's House session to do this, the spokesman added. Supporting her are MPs Warner, Winston Peters, Harry Partap and Nizam Baksh. Holding the balance of power are MPs who (like Partap) signed a letter of support for Panday before the campaign: Chandresh Shar-ma, Tim Gopeesingh, Roodal Moonilal and the ill Hamza Ra-feeq.The leader of at least one religious organisation confirmed yesterday to TG that similar groups have recommended to some MPs to support Persad-Bissessar for the post.
MP Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, who had vowed to allow Panday to remain as Opposition Leader if Maharaj won, subsequently said he would work with the new executive. But Moonilal, Bharath and other MPs yesterday commented adversely on the way Warner was appointed and the ill Rafeeq was replaced
And Panday is not expected to be deserted by his brother Subhas, daughter Mikela or MP Kelvin Ramnath. While Persad-Bissessar's executive met Wednesday, no parliamentary caucus was held, save for an informal meeting on Monday at Panday's Opposition office involving three other MPs where preparations for yesterday's House were made. MPs supporting Persad-Bissessar were absent. However, matters decided upon at that meeting were voided by Persad-Bissessar's appointment of Warner. If cleared as Opposition Leader, Persad-Bissessar's attention may next fall on the UNC's Senate team which could also see changes, executive officials said Thursday.
New deputy leader Suruj Rambachan is tipped for the Senate where Panday's promise to place him last year remains unfulfilled to date, after Rambachan was ousted as Chaguanas mayor. However there are question marks over the continued status of Senator Wade Mark, who had criticised Lyndira Oudit–now deputy leader–during the campaign and Panday stalwart MF Rahaman, who also criticised Persad-Bissessar and Oudit. Similarly, there are questions over who will make the "cut" (or not) in the new administration's choices for expected local government polls. The new dispensation's ties with the COP–if this is deepened –is expected to manifest there.
Foes or friends
The 21-member Persad-Bissessar executive (eight women aboard) includes four former Ramjack officials–Warner, Sylvester Ramquar, Don Sylvester, and Rupert Griffith. The seasoned players are Persad-Bissessar, the ex-Ramjackers, deputy leaders Moonilal and Suruj Rambachan, vice chairman Fuad Khan, education officer Daphne Phillips, and women's affairs officer Jennifer Kernahan. The distance which Persad-Bissessar and Warner attempted to portray between them during the campaign fell away in victory with Warner as conspicuously at Persad-Bissessar's side as he had been at the side of Chaguanas Mayor Natasha Navas, who had had Warner's backing in ousting Rambachan as mayor. At that time Warner had tele-graphed that Panday was "next." In the six months it took for that prediction to be fulfilled, the situation has now seen Rambachan become part of the new UNC executive chaired by Warner.
Rambachan, who left for Miami (on business he said) right after the UNC election, missed sitting alongside Warner for the new executive's first meeting. Asked how he would work with the man whose protege ousted him in Chaguanas–and considering his recent declaration that he'd never trust Warner–Rambachan replied: "People will have to earn my trust. I'll demonstrate my trustworthiness and they will have to show theirs and I'll operate as any professional would. If we all have a clear idea and cause and focus on coalescing and agree on common value there should be no problem." Policy officer Colin Partap, one of those who clashed–literally–with the Ramjack group during the March 23, 2009, melee at Rienzi Complex during a Congress, will also have to work alongside Warner. Partap, son of MP Partap, had coined the term "Ramjack."
Persad-Bissessar's elevation to leader was achieved on the basis–apart from other factors–that she represented the hope for unification of UNC and COP forces and the change from Opposition to Government some anticipate could spring from that. Marketed on that basis therefore, not only will she be held to her political promises, but particularly on unity expectations. While COP leader Winston Dookeran has made positive noises about talks with Persad-Bissessar, on Thursday he opted to "let the people decide" (sic) when asked about her heading a united opposition. With Persad-Bissessar's political star now in ascendency, however, Dookeran (and COP's) stocks may be limited. Robin Montano is among several COP foundation members who warn the situation could destroy both. One COP official added, "The 100,000 UNC members who left and helped form COP did so because of disenchantment with Panday.
"They had supported UNC members like Manohar Ramsaran, Ganga Singh, Gillian Lucky. "Now Panday is gone and they've found themselves uncomfortable in a COP headed by people who were never in UNC– Robert Mayers, Wendy Lee Yuen, Lincoln Douglas, Timothy Hamel-Smith more seen as ONR/ NAR types–so these members may flow back to the UNC. "The only COP person who has bonded with them is Prakash Ramdhar." The COP will hope to stem that flow before it becomes weakened, mitigating against negotiation for equality in a power-sharing arrangement. Indeed, UNC MP Nizam Baksh, who supports Persad-Bissessar, says the UNC should "open up membership to COP to see what flows in, strengthening UNC's base" rather than negotiate with the COP. Baksh added, "If you listen to COP people, they also have issues in that party so we should welcome those who want to return to UNC's new leader."
COP's Gerald Yetming believes Persad-Bissessar will be "allowed" to lead a united opposition. So high are hopes that COP foundation members Gary Griffith and John Humphrey have discussed a UNC/COP unity symbol done by Humphrey–who designed the UNC's Rising Sun symbol. Griffith said, "The parties may not need to disband or consume one another to work together. They need to keep their identity or else there might be repercussions for one or another." Humphrey added, "Winston says COP is the natural home of everyone and if the UNC is the home of some, a combination of them both should be home for all T&T. "Therefore the symbol I designed is a combination of this–the United National Congress of the People (UNCOP).
"The symbol was a natural progression from the UNC's Rising Sun to a UNCOP's sun which is fully risen on high. This is now the time for what the late Lloyd Best recommended–a party of parties under one umbrella in a pre-election coalition and later a coalition government." Humphrey said, "This will capture the spirit of 1986 and is better. "If we'd had done this then, NAR would have still been in office." Certain senior foundation COP officials (former ministers) hesitated Thursday when asked about Persad-Bissessar's ability to lead a government. "If she has a strong, experienced team–and there are good resources in the COP and UNC–then it can work," was the view.