By Capil Bissoon
Former prime minister Basdeo Panday once stated that there are two models of politics—people politics and electoral politics. He noted that while electoral politics was the bridge to attain office to advance people politics, a successful politician must understand that politics is about doing things that advance the lives of people, not about holding power over the people.
His successor as leader of the United National Congress (UNC) and the country’s first woman Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, fully understands that as well. Her recent epic battle to pass the first phase of a comprehensive constitutional reform package demonstrated that while she has crossed the bridge and holds power, she is now happy to hand over some of that power to the people in order to expand democracy while keeping promises she made in 2010.
The fact that she said she was ready to risk “political suicide” to achieve that goal was a statement that put her above all her predecessors and aspiring politicians, many of whom see electoral politics as an opportunity to achieve power for themselves.
Unfortunately, her main political opponent, Dr Keith Rowley, doesn’t appear to see politics through the lenses of Mr Panday or Mrs Persad-Bissessar. The leader of the People’s National Movement (PNM) sees his party as paramount and that is evident in the party slogan — Great is the PNM and It Shall Prevail.
The debates on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 brought that out clearly. While the Prime Minister was willing to allow a conscience vote in the House of Representatives and to make significant amendments to the bill in the Senate, the PNM stood firm on its position that it would not support anything in the bill, even though its principal positions were not fundamentally different from the PNM’s position on those issues.
For instance, the PNM’s constitution that was revised and amended under Dr Rowley’s watch, allows a run-off vote for the leadership election if no candidate gets 50 per cent of the vote in a first ballot. That’s exactly what the bill was proposing but the party chose to ditch the whole idea on the basis that this particular measure was not introduced after consultation with the people.
The PNM’s position is to oppose everything that the People’s Partnership Government proposes, even if it means voting against things that would benefit the people. One exception was the vote for and strong defence of the proposal to increase pensions for MPs. The PNM has already rejected one budgetary measure that is geared to the people although it has not seen the details. In presenting the Constitution (Amendment) Bill the Prime Minister said the budget would contain a provision for a Constituency Development Fund of $10 million for each of the 41 constituencies. This would supplement whatever is allocated in the budget and would be available through the local government ministry for use to enhance the respective constituencies.
Rowley’s PNM rejected it outright, leading the Express newspaper to rebuff the Opposition Leader for prematurely dismissing something that might have the potential for moving the country forward.
“The danger of misconception, leading to misdirection, mishandling and inadequate oversight and controls, remains one to which all State programmes are vulnerable. But fear that a costly mess may be made of it is hardly a sufficient reason to rule out embarking on any initiative,” the paper stated in an editorial on September 1, 2014.
It added, “By invoking the justifiably damned and blasted LifeSport programme, Dr Rowley has cast a dark and sinister shadow over the prospects of the Constituency Development Fund. But “Not Another LifeSport!” can hardly be justifiable as a pre-emptive discrediting of a programme that is as yet little more than an idea.”
The idea has been in development since it was first floated in 2012 and when fully outlined would likely present an opportunity for each MP to access funds immediately to do some things that might otherwise not be possible due to normal state bureaucracy.
One would think the PNM would jump at this proposal, especially in an election year when its 13 MPs would be able to provide whatever relief they consider appropriate to enhance the lives of the people and develop the communities.
But the fly in the ointment is that this is a People’s Partnership Government proposal and for the PNM that means it must be opposed. In the process the PNM might be shooting itself in the foot by throwing out the best opportunity it can get to do something for the people.