Does Warner's victory open up Trinidad politics?

Jack Warner campaigning (Jack Warner Facebook page)
By Tony Fraser, writing from Port of Spain
 
What next for former senior government minister, former vice-president of Fifa, president of Concacaf and multi-millionaire businessman Austin “Jack” Warner?
 
That is the question posed by the stunning success of Mr Warner and his breakaway Independent Liberal Party (ILP), which is forcing the political hierarchy of Trinidad and Tobago to take a fresh look at the political phenomenon that he represents.
 
On 29 July, he scored a decisive win in the hotly contested Chaguanas West by-election, facing down a campaign onslaught by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, her cabinet and the main governing party’s entire machinery.
 
Before the poll, Labour Minister Errol McCleod had warned that the international community would frown on T&T if Mr Warner were to be re-elected as a Member of Parliament, despite the Fifa/Concacaf corruption allegations hanging over his head.
 
But that was exactly what happened, creating a new headache for his former colleagues in the four-party People’s Partnership (PP) coalition.
 
He polled 12,631 votes, as against the 5,126 cast for the candidate of the United National Congress (UNC), Khadijah Ameen – who came across as no match for Mr Warner’s political skills.  
 
“A new era”
 
Post-election, Jack Warner has other views about his return to Parliament.
 
“A new era has dawned in the politics; I am merely the voice of the people in the community,” trumpeted the irrepressible Mr Warner to his jubilant supporters on the night of his victory.
 
He insisted: “I came up against the might of the entire government and won, notwithstanding the highest level of vindictiveness and against all of the odds.”  
 
The by-election of 29 July came about when, three months ago, Jack Warner was reported by a tribunal of the Confederation of North American, Caribbean Football Association (Concacaf) to have engaged in activity contrary to the rules of the association and the international governing body of football, Fifa.
 
Since the chairman of the tribunal was the respected former chief justice and attorney general of Barbados, Sir David Simmons, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar readily accepted Mr Warner’s resignation. 
 
The former Fifa vice-president subsequently resigned as Member of Parliament for Chaguanas West and as chairman of the UNC, the lead party in Trinidad and Tobago’s governing coalition.
 
Revalidated
 
Mr Warner, more than any other single person, was responsible for Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s ascension to the top of the political heap and was one of her greatest defenders against “political enemies”. 
 
He told his prime minister he was resigning to have his constituents “revalidate me”.   
 
And that was exactly what they did, in an area where an estimated 90% of the people are of East Indian heritage (Mr Warner being Afro-Trinidadian) and loyal supporters of the predominantly Indian UNC.  
 
The UNC’s own by-election campaign was led from the front by Mrs Persad-Bissessar and a team of ministers, all of them Indo-Trini and Hindu.
 
They liberally used the sub-text of race, in an effort to create the fear in the minds of the Indian voters that if they were thinking of voting for the Afro-Trinidad former football head, they would be handing over an ancestral constituency to an “outsider”.  
 
Even on the day of polling, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan went out of his way to connect Mr Warner to “strange men” who had allegedly come into one part of the constituency and killed and robbed a man.   
 
“After the motorcade last night, there was drunken and disorderly conduct by people who do not live in Chaguanas West who remained in the areas outside the bars and on the streets and terrorised people in this area and they came into this area with ulterior motives,” Mr Ramlogan said.
 
“Some of them were looking and checking out people house, checking out people wife, ridiculing them, pouring scorn. I mean, you can't urinate on someone's Jhandi [Hindu sacred flag].
 
“That is a very sacred spot in someone's life and home and that kind of behaviour is not something we can encourage.”
 
The police, however, denied the claim and said the robbery and murder had nothing to do with the election. All those not living in the area had been cleared out after the motorcade, they added.
 
Campaign comments
 
Jack Warner’s infrastructure promises for the constituency also came under fire.
 
Another minister, Dr Roodal Moonilal, alleged that one of the main issues in the election was the future of Indo-Trinidadians continuing to become “doctors and engineers”.
 
He called on voters to avoid succumbing to the temptation of being a “people who want to sell out that legacy for a box drain”.
 
Dr Moonilal also told his audiences during the campaign that “they want us to go back to bull and bison cart” - one popular form of transport for a class of Indo-Trinidadian farmers of the 1940s and 1950s.
 
Major platform speakers, including the prime minister, defined Chaguanas West as the heartland constituency of their forefathers. Some said it could not be tolerated that an “outsider” would be allowed to come in to snatch an electoral victory from the UNC.
 
In spite of all that, Mr Warner was returned by a two-to-one plus margin: he won every polling division in the constituency. It seems that voters made their choice on the basis of quality representation of the constituency, rather than heeding the call to vote on loyalty to party and tribe.
 
 
 
Political sea change?
 
But it’s still unclear whether the victory signals the start of a decline in the historical pattern of voting on the basis of race for the major Indian party, the UNC, and the Afro-Trinidadian based People’s National Movement (PNM).
 
“Nothing has changed. If a general election were held tomorrow, voters would go out to vote for their tribe,” observed UNC founder and former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday.  
 
Mr Panday’s view on the voting patterns is supported by pollster Nigel Henry, whose poll accurately predicted the outcome of the election.
 
“Yes I agree with Mr Panday that in a general election, the electorate would vote for the large parties along traditional lines,” Mr Henry told a radio programme two days after the by-election.
 
The young pollster, who accurately predicted the outcome of January’s Tobago House election, also agrees with Mr Panday’s solution of replacing the first-past-the-post system with proportional representation, on the basis that it will reduce the impulse to vote for ethnic candidates in constituencies.
 
 
Away from “tribal rule”
 
University of the West Indies political analyst Winford James, commenting comments during by-election night TV coverage, saw the result as a new direction.
 
“We hope that the result of this election is going to take us to a path which will not be reversed and therefore the party will clean themselves up and come up with a model of democracy or constitutional reform that does not take us back along the tribal rule,” Dr James said.
 
But the Chaguanas West by-election took place in peculiar circumstances. Mr Warner was seen to have been the victim of ingratitude on the part of a prime minister, a cabinet and a party that he had done much for personally.
 
These are factors personal to Mr Warner and are not likely to be transferred to other Afro-Trinidadians.
 
“Jack Warner is even more Indian than some government ministers,” was the quip of his right-hand woman on the campaign platform, attorney Anna Deonarine-Rampersad. 
 
During the campaign, the Trinidadian media quoted several of Mr Warner’s constituents relating how he had intervened meaningfully in their lives.
 
They outlined how he had given scholarships to young people and was always present at moments and events important to them, including funerals, weddings and pujas (Hindu prayers).
 
They said he was always ready to purchase a pair of shoes for a child to be able to go to school and to “put his hand in his pocket to put food on the table for his constituents”.
 
 
Where next?
 
As to where Jack Warner and the ILP go from here, whether they join the PP or whether the ILP seeks national electoral office by itself is an issue for contemplation “by the interim leadership of the party”, according to Mr Warner.
 
Asked about that possibility, the re-elected Chaguanas West MP noted on the morning after the by-election that his first and second offers to become part of the coalition after he won had been “spurned”.
 
However he has made it quite clear that he will not accept the conditions laid down by Mrs Persad-Bissessar that he must first clear his name of the Concacaf allegations before he is allowed back into the UNC.
 
Mr Warner said he would not return to membership of the UNC and that the ILP would have to be brought into the coalition.
 
When asked whether he wanted to be prime minister, he said: “As of now, I have no ambitions, but I tell you, if people want me to take on the role, I will not run from it.”
 
The second-largest party in the coalition, the Congress of the People (COP), is not comfortable, to say the least, with the possible return of Mr Warner to the People’s Partnership.
 
"It is not an easy fit to speak of ILP and wanting to join the coalition, that's an issue to discuss,” said COP chairman Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan on the morning after the by-election.  
 
“But how will this party join the partnership after competing against another member of the coalition?
 
“It is a dangerous development and we have concerns re the financing the campaign of the parties in the election.
 
“Are we practising democracy or purchasing power?"
 
 
Door open
 
Significantly, in his victory speech on the night of the by-election, Mr Warner avoided any repeat of the stinging criticism he had levelled at the prime minister and the cabinet during the campaign. 
 
Nor did Mrs Persad-Bissessar repeat her allegations of corruption made against him during the campaigning.
In fact, she “wished him all the best”.
 
Political analyst Dr Bishnu Ragoonath told Caribbean Intelligence© that Mr Warner’s victory in the UNC’s heartland “should be a wake-up call for the government, as having lost the THA [Tobago House of Assembly] election so badly and now this, it is now on a slippery slope.”
 
For opposition leader Keith Rowley of the PNM, "the result is a damaging blow to the government and we are calling on the prime minister to call fresh elections now.”
 
Dr Ragoonath also said the UNC and the PP coalition government should review their position of not wanting an alliance with Mr Warner and the ILP.
 
Mr Warner’s campaign against the UNC attracted much support from outside Chaguanas West.
 
One view is that people wanted to make a statement about what is seen as the “poor quality” of governance being served up by the PP.
 
Given the UNC/PP coalition’s need to draw support from outside the Indo-Trinidad heartland, the issue remains whether Mr Warner and the ILP can expect to do as well in a general election as they did in the by-election.
 
 
Related links
Caribbean Intelligence - Jack Warner - Epitaph or Triumph? (May 2013)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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