Prime Minister Patrick Manning would surely remember November 6, 1995. Manning's People's National Movement (PNM) polled 48.8 per cent of the votes cast in an election he surprisingly called a year ahead of schedule. The then-fast-rising United National Congress (UNC) got 45.8 per cent of the electorate's support, and along with National Alliance for Reconstruction (4.8 per cent), strolled into Whitehall. A stunning 17-17-2 result offered a fresh depiction of the political landscape, and a part reversal of the 1991 finish, in which Manning had taken his party to comfortable victories in 21 constituencies. The UNC, then a breakaway splinter of the flash-in-the-pan National Alliance for Reconstruction, had won 13 seats in 1991, while ANR Robinson was reconfirmed as Tobago's prime political figure.
Manning's decision to summon the electorate to the 1995 election came in the midst of a welter of political controversies, dismissal of an envoy by fax, the Southland mall row, and the Severn Trent contract, among them. He later conceded that he feared losing more seats if he had taken his administration to a full term. Analysts later surmised that Manning's cause was not helped by calling the election amid the emotion of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of East Indian indentured labourers. Manning's 1995 slip from national office led him to be demonised by his own party. Deputy leaders resigned, and he lost the lustre of his 1991 triumph. In that year, he had taken the PNM from the 1986 political scrapyard to a glorious electoral victory.
He was, after all, an accidental leader, one of only three PNM candidates to have survived the 1986 NAR avalanche. Muriel Donawa-McDavidson was never a political heavyweight and Morris Marshall was a neophyte, so it was obvious that Manning would have been made Leader of the Opposition and win leadership of the party, despite a sally from Dr Aeneas Wills. That was a far climb for Manning, who, in 1971 at age 24, the year of the no-vote campaign, was given the San Fernando East seat as a political gift. His family had been avowed disciples of PNM founder Dr Eric Williams and young Patrick was proffered into the political fray for an election that, incidentally, took place on May 24.
His early years as a representative were spent in ministerial apprenticeship under the tutelage of the heavy rollers of the day and until today he has mixed memories. His place in national, and especially PNM, history was assured until his startling 1995 decision to summon the nation to the polls while his political stocks were low. Much has happened for Manning since 1995, of course, including resounding electoral victories, much more aplomb in national office and increased regional presence. But a Prime Minister does not go to the electorate at mid-term without powerful reasons, and it is difficult to find factors in Manning's favour.
As they turn out to his evening rallies, even his balisier-waving partisans seem nonplussed. Over the past decade, Manning has presided over the largest budgets in Trinidad and Tobago's history, but issues of poverty, social and economic welfare are sure to dominate the five-week electoral campaign. And while he is correct on the poor track records of local coalition arrangements, the patchwork deal between UNC and Congress of the People (COP), and the trade unions, presents him with a challenge similar to that of 1995. He would find himself in the cumbersome position Basdeo Panday faced in the UNC executive election: How do you campaign against a popular female contender with dazzle and folksy appeal?
With Manning in his mid-60s, this may be his final turn at the crease and he doubtlessly wants to pass the baton to Conrad Enill on an electoral high. But with a fast regrouping Opposition on his heels, corruption allegations in his face and national woes all around him, Manning is facing the political fight of his life. To be sure, he is a tough combatant with tremendous political acumen, all of which he would have to summon for a bruising encounter on May 24. As Manning tempts fate once more, November 6, 1995, will surely haunt him.