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The changing face of T&T politics

Panday (left), and Manning

Rickey Singh, Contributor

WHATEVER the outcome of this week's planned court battle by the opposition People's National Movement (PNM) to disqualify two successful candidates at last Monday's general elections, the victories scored by Basdeo Panday's United National Congress (UNC) in traditional PNM constituencies, suggest that a much more matured electorate have now clearly placed that party on the road to significantly change parliamentary politics in Trinidad and Tobago.

As this column was being written, Prime Minister Panday, founder-leader of the UNC, was still awaiting the constitutional call from President ANR Robinson - his former coalition partner of the early years of the 1995-2000 first term to be sworn in again as head of a new administration in Port-of-Spain.

The Electoral and Boundaries Commission's Chief Elections Officer, Howard Cayenne, said Friday President Robinson did not have to wait for the requsested recount of ballots in any of the 36 constituencies in order to invite the leader he considers best able to command a parliamentary majority.

That leader, from the declared official preliminary results, is clearly Panday whose party won a second term with 19 of the 34 seats contested in Trinidad, while the PNM obtained 16, including one of the two Tobago seats. The other was won by the minority National Alliance for Reconstruc-tion (NAR).

By the time you read this, Panday may well have received the call from Robinson to be sworn in again as Prime Minister and to form a new Government. Yes, even amid the ongoing speculations of a looming political crisis should the court rule in favour of the PNM to disqualify UNC candidates Winston "Gpysy" Peters, a popular calypsonian, and William Chaitan, business executive.

In contrast, as Panday prepares to form a new Government, editorialists and social commentators have already started to discuss the political future of Manning as leader of the PNM, after his second consecutive defeat and implications of a serious challenge he faced in his own San Fernando East constituency. Manning has, however, dismissed as "utter nonsense", any idea of a move within the party to jettison him as leader.

Panday's UNC did more than win a plurality of seats for the 36-member parliament. The significant swing to the UNC in traditional PNM constituencies, across ethnic lines, that made possible its capture of all five of the so-called "marginal seats", clearly marked a historical turning point in the country's politics.

The results

For, with the exception of the 1986 defeat of the PNM by a coalition of parties headed then by Robinson, and including Panday, December 11, 2000 was the first occasion for a single opposition party to secure an overall lead in popular votes.

According to the official preliminary results released by the EBC, the UNC obtained its 19 seats with 307,130 of the valid votes, or approximately 50.05 per cent to the PNM's 276,709 or about 48.06 per cent for 16 seats, including the votes polled in the two Tobago constituencies.

For all the percentage swing in its favour, nationally, the two marginal seats the UNC had to win, beyond the 17 secured at the November 1995 elections, were San Fernando West and San Juan.

Its campaign manager, Works Minister Sadiq Baksh, defeated the PNM's Anthony Elias by a plurality of 794 votes. And in Tunapuna, outgoing Trade Minister Mervyn Assam created the unexpected upset by securing 299 more votes than the PNM's incumbent Edward Hart. He was expected to gain some more votes in a recount called for by the PNM's Hart.

The two UNC candidates the PNM is seeking to disqualify on the issue of failing to declare their dual citizenship on nomination day, Peters and Chaitan, both convincingly won their Ortoire/Mayaro and Pointe-A-Pierre respectively.

'Unity Front' call

Brimming with confidence of his party's secured place in the dominant two-party system of governance in the country, Panday was to repeat his call to the PNM, following Monday's victory, for a "unity front" Government as he had done following the 1995 elections.

If there is substance to such a call, and it meets with a positive response, it would indeed be a remarkable development in unifying the country, based on the freely expressed will of some 99 per cent of those who cast their votes.

For his part, Manning was focused on denying media reports of internal demands for a leadership change in the PNM, and in engaging in the mathematical possibilities of heading a new Government should his party succeed, by a legal technicality, in achieving what it had failed to do at the elections - defeat Peters and Chaitan.

Now that "the mother of all election battles"­ as the December 11 poll was promoted ­ has been won by the UNC, the country is gearing for perhaps its most challenging constitutional duel to disqualify Peters and Chaitan. At the time of their nomination, they respectively held citizenship for the United States and Canada. They had renounced the dual citizenship before being elected, and made it public. The issue is whether they deliberately failed, as required, to state in their nomination papers that they had dual citizenship, and by failing to do so may also have perjured themselves.

One of the possibilities, should they be disqualified, is that the court can declare the seats vacant and order by-elections.

Like the pollsters, I had also expected a close finish between the UNC and PNM. But, as I indicated last week, unless something dramatic occurred, my expectation was that, unlike in 1995, there would be a clear winner and that Panday was heading for a second five-year term with at least 19 seats.

In achieving that feat on Monday, when some 598,000 voters, or 63 per cent of the estimated 947,689 eligible electors exercised their franchise, Panday's UNC registered what Guyanese may recall of a proclaimed "breakthrough" victory by the People's National Congress in People's Progressive Party's strongholds in 1973. The difference, of course, being a "breakthrough" by the UNC based on free and not rigged elections.

By its victory, the UNC has now reinforced its capacity to win support across the racial divide and stake a valid claim to being a national party with significant support beyond its traditional East Indian mass base.

The first indication of the UNC moving to shed the image of an "Indian" dominated party ­ paralleling the PNM that has become more of an "African" dominated party - came at the November 6 1995 elections, when it scored victories in some traditional PNM constituencies to end up in a 17-17 tie with the PNM.

Like the PNM, the UNC is still stuck with an ethnic image ­ as it is in Guyana's politics in relation to the PNC and the PPP. The Barbadian political scientist of the UWI and pollster, Peter Wickham, in a post-election focus, wrote last week that "from a longer-term perspective, there is substantial evidence forthcoming to suggest that the UNC has successfully been able to shed its "Indian" image in favour of a national image.

"It should now be perceived as a real threat to the PNM in its traditional strongholds and not be confined to the 'sugar belt'...."

We now await the outcome of the PNM's yet to be filed petition in the High Court against Peters and Chaitan and the formation of a new Govern-ment in Port-of-Spain.

Rickey Singh is a journalist based in Barbados.

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