?The PNM should have stuck to the position first adopted by its political leader, Patrick Manning, that he did not stand to benefit from a face-to-face debate with his opponent, Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
By responding in the manner he did to the invitation of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce for the party leader to debate with Mrs Persad-Bissessar, PNM chairman Conrad Enill may have introduced disingenuity to the pot which had previously received a dash of disdain from the refusal of his political leader, Mr Manning. The reasons advanced by Mr Enill–that the debate would have been rushed, that dates, times, venues, moderators and the like being advanced without the input of the PNM, and the party not being given sufficient time for adequate preparation–are all issues that are worthy of deliberation. And, in fact, these issues have been the subject of a great deal of prior negotiation in the US, where the idea of pre-election leadership debates has been popularised.
But the question must be asked: Who set the election date? Given the very shortness of time that the PNM says militated against its participation, should the Chamber have procrastinated without advancing preparations? Why did it take the PNM more than three weeks to respond to the invitation to debate? If there was genuine interest in the first instance, why did the PNM not immediately engage the Chamber to negotiate the party's participation in the exercise? The stated commitment of the PNM, as articulated by the chairman, "to ensuring a free and fair election by a well informed electorate" is hollow, specially coming from a party that has existed for 54 years and participated in every election since 1956. What more time for preparation for serious discussion of its plans and policies does the PNM require?
Moreover, this year's refusal is just the latest occasion going back several elections when the PNM has refused to engage in public debate with its opponents. Its reluctance even to consider negotiating the terms of a debate is surprising, given the Prime Minister's 39 years of continuous occupation of a seat in Parliament and the fact that the main hallmark of that institution is the cut and thrust of debate. It would be quite a shock to most of those who intend to vote on May 24 if T&T's most experienced parliamentarian was not also its most accomplished debater–and did not consider himself as such. As a means of seeking to argue its way out of the debate, the PNM statement claims a debate would be advantageous to the UNC. The basis for that position is that whereas the PNM has a track record and a set of policies and programmes, the UNC does not.
That of course is far from the truth as the UNC was in power for six years and the party and its coalition partners are all organisations and individuals who have known positions and track records. In some cases that history of political service reflects well on the individuals and the UNC and its coalition partners–and in other cases it reflects poorly. The question to Mr Manning is why would his party not benefit in the same manner as the UNC from an open and frank debate about real issues, given the PNM's track record of stewardship, both good and bad, over the last nine years.
Can it be because Mr Manning is afraid of being upstaged by Mrs Persad-Bissessar? Or does he feel that he would he not be able to stand up to frank debating on the Calder Hart, Udecott, and Guanapo church issues?
We call on the ruling party to reconsider its decision not to participate in an election debate, given the debating skills of its leader and the undoubted contribution the party has made to this country's development in the last 54 years in general and specifically in the last nine year. Even at this point it is not too late to engage in the negotiations over the details of the debate.