?Sunday night's victory by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, placing her as the new political leader of the opposition United National Congress (UNC), is tantamount to a political earthquake in T&T. And while the political shake-up may not leave anyone dead, there are likely to be many careers that end up being badly wounded. Mrs Persad-Bissessar has done what many men before her have failed to do: she toppled the man whose name has become synonymous with post-independence opposition politics in T&T–Basdeo Panday. Although the election machinery was clearly stacked against her and her slate with a large number of voters being disenfranchised, the huge margin of Mrs Persad-Bissessar's victory for the post of political leader of the UNC was a clear indication that almost every member of the party wanted change.
Given the very clear message of the UNC members in terms of their democratic choice of leaders, Mr Panday would serve the interests of his party and the country's democracy if he were to relinquish the role of Opposition Leader. While this may not be easy, Mr Panday needs to put aside his hurt, his wounded pride and his bruised ego and direct those MPs who may still hold some loyalty to him to support Mrs Persad-Bissessar. In doing so, he would set a new and much higher bar for statesmanship in the Caribbean, he would go some way to removing the stain of his own statement that politics has a morality of its own, and he would leave a legacy of putting his party before himself. But given his recent history with Winston Dookeran over a similar contest, it would surprise no one if Mr Panday fights to the finish to maintain his hold over the post of Leader of the Opposition, which gives him a well-defined, constitutionally mandated role and the ability to appoint senators who are loyal to him.
If he insists on putting up a fight to maintain the office, Mr Panday would have suffered the ignoble transformation from being a 42-year-old attorney who fought to improve the lot of sugar workers in the mid-1970s to a 77-year-old former political leader fighting to retain office and fighting, as well, to stay out of jail. This is probably not how Mr Panday would like to be remembered. Mr Panday has always said he respects the democratic will of the people expressed in free and fair elections. He has demonstrated this by his decision not to contest the inconceivable and wrong decision of then President Arthur NR Robinson to take the premiership away from him and give it to Patrick Manning in 2001 when the result was an 18-18 tie.
That decision saved T&T from a stalemate situation and a potential political meltdown. It solidified Mr Panday's reputation as a true democrat–someone who put his country before himself and who respected the fact that the umpire's decision is always final and ought not to be questioned. If Mrs Persad-Bissessar can assume the post of Leader of the Opposition to go with her elected role as the political leader of the UNC, she would have the leverage to bring the country's opposition parties together. This is not something that we advocate but there are clearly some people who would argue that a unified, engaged opposition can only be in the best interest of T&T's democracy. The Opposition MPs who now support Mr Panday should also realise where lies the best interests of the UNC. We congratulate all the winners of the UNC's internal party elections and hope they remember that they have been elected to serve the people and not themselves.