At 1.30 p.m. tomorrow, Dr Keith Rowley, the political leader of the People’s National Movement (PNM), will take the oath of office to become Trinidad and Tobago’s seventh Prime Minister. His appointment follows the PNM’s 23-18 seat victory over the outgoing People’s Partnership (PP) coalition in Monday’s general election.
Voters of the twin-island republic are to be congratulated for effecting yet another peaceful change of government through the ballot box. This provides reassuring testimony that democracy, despite its imperfections, is alive and well in our Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Though elections are fiercely fought in our region, rarely are they characterized by the deadly violence seen in some countries.
For Dr Rowley, the political journey to the nation’s highest elected office has been long and filled with challenges, especially in the past year when he was up against an obvious smear campaign by the outgoing PP coalition. His victory, on a personal level, therefore underscores a resilience and strength of character that should serve him in good stead as he confronts the complex challenges of governing Trinidad and Tobago.
In a victory speech before thousands of supporters at the PNM’s Balisier House headquarters, Dr Rowley was gracious and magnanimous. He reached out to the entire country, especially supporters of the defeated coalition, making it clear that it will not be a case of “we versus them” as he will be a prime minister for all of Trinidad and Tobago. He also promised no quick fixes to the country’s problems, noting, “These are not times of milk and honey.”
On the other hand, outgoing Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s concession speech was a disappointment for which she has received some harsh criticism. As if stunned by the defeat, she belaboured the point, surrounded by a small group of supporters, that her PP coalition had won the popular vote, which was irrelevant because the election was conducted on the first past the post system.
However, what was most striking about the speech is that she did not follow tradition in extending congratulations and best wishes to the incoming prime minister. She wished the new government well but never once mentioned Dr Rowley by name. It is true that the campaign was bruising and she would have taken some punches. But so too did Dr Rowley who was under relentless attack even before the election bell was rung.
However, once the election is over and the result is known, it is customary for rival political leaders to set aside differences, let bygones be bygones, and send a clear signal to the country of their desire to promote healing and unity in the national interest. Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s concession speech was therefore not what was expected of a former prime minister.
Though the PNM on its own is still the dominant party in Trinidad and Tobago, it is clear, however, that it no longer enjoys the broad, national appeal, which existed in its heyday under the leadership of founding father Dr Eric Eustace Williams. In those days, easily winning a two-thirds parliamentary majority was the norm for the PNM in general elections. Clearly, some rebuilding of the party has to be done.
It is also clear, based on the estimated voter turnout, that the political system is no longer seen as relevant by a sizeable segment of the population. This situation is not unique to Trinidad and Tobago but also several other countries where voters see participating in general elections through the exercise of their franchise as meaningless because they believe it will make little difference to solving problems affecting their lives.
Dr Rowley spoke last night of modernization, which has taken place within the PNM over the last five years. Clearly, this process must continue. A major weakness of political parties around the region is that they are continuing to view the world from a 20th Century perspective when the world exists in the 21st Century. Political relevance and perspective go hand in hand.
Because of the close economic ties, which exist between Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, policy decisions taken in Port of Spain can have some impact here, especially on Trinidadian-owned companies that have become major players in the Barbados market. Given the declining price of oil, which is Trinidad and Tobago’s, principal export and the fall-out on the economy, the PNM Government’s first budget, to be presented in another month or so, will provide clear insights into its policy direction.
The very best wishes to Dr Rowley and his team and congratulations again to the people of Trinidad and Tobago!