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EDITORIAL - Panday must just go

Published:Wednesday | January 27, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Having suffered a heavy defeat by Kamla Persad-Bissessar in the challenge to his leadership of Trinidad and Tobago's United National Congress (UNC), Basdeo Panday should do the moral thing and resign as leader of the parliamentary opposition, lest he diminish further his personal reputation, undermine his legacy and damage irreparably the party he founded 20 years ago.

But, from Panday's behaviour in the wake of Sunday's balloting by UNC members, in which he received a mere 1,359 votes to Persad-Bissessar's nearly 14,000, it would appear that this is precisely Panday's intent - to make it so difficult for Persad-Bissessar to exert authority over the party and its activities inside the legislature that the UNC disintegrates in a new round of struggles.

Indeed, in Westminster-style politics, which the parties in Trinidad and Tobago purport to practise and which Panday likes to invoke when it suits his purpose, it is usual for a defeated leader to provide his/her successor unimpeded room to make personnel choices, including - unless the circumstances preclude this or there are specific arrangements to the contrary - to assume the post of prime minister or leader of the opposition. No situation exists in the UNC that would preclude this norm.

Resounding 'no'

But Panday has, so far, given a resounding 'no' to questions of whether he will voluntarily step down as leader of the opposition, saying that he will leave that decision to UNC MPs.

"I became leader of the opposition because of a national election," he said. "Now, this is a party election, and they are two different things."

This remark smacks of the same kind of hubris displayed by Panday, 77, during the campaign when he suggested that Persad-Bissessar was a drunk and incapable of leading the UNC.

Yet, it was characteristic of the behaviour of Panday over many years. He has attempted to run the UNC as a private fiefdom, assuming that his bluff, larger-than-life personality and memories of his past achievements were sufficient to sustain his control of the party. It is a personality defect that contributed in no small way to the several splits, defections and dysfunctional relationships in the UNC, culminating in Sunday's defeat of Panday and most of his slate of candidates.

Deep sadness

There is a deep sadness in this. For Panday made a significant contribution to the political process in Trinidad and Tobago as a labour leader and as head of the United Labour Front which helped shake the People's National Movement (PNM) out of its self-assured torpor and create the environment for a viable, multi-party democracy. He twice served as prime minister.

That's a substantial legacy that Panday is in danger of undoing while, in the process, entrenching, at least for now, the PNM's and Patrick Manning's hold on government.

All this, of course, will severely test the leadership skills of Persad-Bissessar, whose first job must be to unify the various factions of the UNC if it is to be a viable party. It will also make sense for her to attempt to bring back into the fold Winston Dookeran's Congress of the People (COP), a splinter that was caused by one of Panday's many feuds.

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