Overcoming political barriers to economic revival

Tony Fraser

Trinidad and Tobago’s energy-driven economy has survived the international recession without suffering too badly; but to make the most of economic possibilities for growth, the four-party coalition People’s Partnership government of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has to overcome several political and electoral hurdles.

Although positive about her government’s ability to move the economy forward, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar and her government face serious political and industrial relations challenges, including two local government elections and a general election required by the constitution in 2015.

Not least of the problems facing Persad Bissessar is keeping the coalition government, originally composed of five parties, now reduced to four, intact. In June 2012, two years after being part of the People’s Partnership that won the general elections, the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ), which comprises the trade union movement, left the PP coalition, accusing it of going back on its manifesto promises and being overrun with corrupt activity. “It is in this context that the National executive and Activists Council of the Movement for Social Justice have decided that our party will remove itself from the People’s Partnership coalition of political parties,” said MSJ leader, David Abdulah.

Internal conflict has not ended with the departure of the MSJ. The second largest party in the coalition, the Congress of the People (COP), has often taken public positions against government and cabinet decisions and actions that have been instigated by the major coalition partner, the United National Congress, the party of the prime minister.

Notably, COP leader, Prakash Maharaj, has called on Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar to suspend Jack Warner from her cabinet. A senior minister, Warner is facing allegations of corruption while he was vice-president of Fifa, the world football body. In December 2012, while facing a serious challenge from hunger-striker Dr Wayne Kublalsingh who was protesting the passage of a portion of a major highway through a series of 13 communities, former COP leader, Winston Dookeran, came out publicly against the aggressive and non-yielding position of Persad Bissessar and a few of her UNC ministers. He called on the prime minister to exercise “compassion and compromise” in dealing with Kublalsingh and the protesting villagers.

Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar frowned on “such individuals and groups who are seen to be betraying the trust that has been placed in the Partnership”, and accused them of engaging “in what amounts to blackmail of my leadership”.

One of the major political challenges faced by Persad-Bissessar and her government came from the appointment in January 2011 of a low-level technician head of the country’s major secret service, the Security Intelligence Agency. After steadfastly defending the appointment for two weeks and demanding that the media “move on” from the subject, the prime minister admitted the appointment had been an error, apologised, labelled it “my biggest mistake” and vowed that it would not happen again.

Undoubtedly, though, the biggest political fallout occurred in August 2012 and has come to be known as the ‘Section 34 fiasco’. Having promised parliament to delay for two to three years any legislation allowing judges to dismiss criminal cases which have been awaiting trial for more than ten years, the government quietly proclaimed law Section 34 of the Administration of Justice Act. The move could have resulted in billion-dollar corruption charges being dropped against several former government ministers and financiers of the ruling party.

Section 34 was quickly repealed and the Justice Minister fired after an almighty furore broke out. But large segments of the national community across all political allegiances have targeted the prime minister, her Attorney-General and the entire cabinet for allegedly implementing legislation to free its financiers and former ministerial colleagues.

Two huge public demonstrations organised by the opposition People’s National Movement, the majority of the labour movement, and supported by several civic groups put pressure on the government. A no confidence vote against the prime minister in parliament followed (which could not be passed given the government’s built-in majority in the parliament) and has seriously damaged the credibility of the government.

Widespread negative public comment carried in the print and electronic media against the government for its handling of the Section 34 fiasco continues. With its back against the proverbial wall, the prime minister and her inner (UNC) cabinet have taken to attacking the media, charging them with bias. The government is also facing severe criticism and demonstrations from significant sections of the trade union movement that are demanding long-delayed wage negotiations in the public sector.

In this hostile political environment, the government faces a poll in January to elect the Tobago House of Assembly, which controls the domestic affairs of Tobago, and local government elections later this year in Trinidad. In these elections, the People’s Partnership – fractured and disunited within and being confronted by a revived People’s National Movement – faces what amounts to referenda on its government. There is no question that the political and industrial obstacles to overcome are many as the government seeks to resuscitate economic revival.

About the author:

Tony Fraser is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad and Tobago


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International