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Raffique Shah


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Manning's election gambit

By Raffique Shah
April 11, 2010

First, let's cut the bull over Prime Minister Patrick Manning's reasons for calling a mid-term general election. The United National Congress (UNC) motion of no-confidence in the PM, which he cited as one reason, was doomed to fail-unless he feared his own members voting against him. There was no cause for concern or unpleasant surprises.

His charge that opposition MPs would have exploited the debate to slander him and others associated with the People's National Movement (PNM) is also weak. Parliamentarians on both sides of the divide have done that for many years. While many MPs and senators have abused parliamentary privilege in the extreme, the no-confidence motion would, at worst, have seen MPs regurgitating details of the Uff Commission Report, which is in the public domain anyway. There is also talk that Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar had 'some damning files' that might have embarrassed the PM, though no one could say in what way.

If Ms Bissessar has 'files', she would simply take it on the election road show. Similarly, Mr Manning can mount campaign platforms with his 'where de money gone?' line he used in the House, pointing fingers at Dr Rowley. Politicians and parties often get away with slander on the campaign trail because their victims cannot monitor all meetings.

So why is Mr Manning putting his party at risk? The economy, while it's not growing apace, is performing reasonably well. We are better off than almost all other Caribbean countries, in that we have no need to return to the IMF cap-in-hand. Oil stands at US$80-plus a barrel, with projections that it will rise above $100 by year-end. Natural gas prices are also above the benchmark US$4MMBtu, with forecasts of $5, again by year-end. Manufacturing is sluggish, but that's a global trend. Consumer spending is down as it is in most countries.

The PNM's Achilles heels lie in three spots. First, there's a Cabinet that has ignored the views of the people, even solid PNM supporters, proceeding with projects that have nothing to do with human development. Multi-storey buildings that cost billions of dollars remain unoccupied even as the infirm cannot find bed-space in overcrowded, run-down hospitals, to cite one example. Second, people know that crime has not eased. They no longer report 'petty' crimes like personal robberies, burglaries, larceny and minor violence. Unreported crimes no doubt far exceed those that are reported.

And third, corruption is a major issue the party must face up to. Although the dissolution of Parliament pre-empted debate on the Uff Report, there are too many questionable contracts and deals that have impacted on the 'people's perception index'. One can expect these charges and scandals to dominate political platforms. They remain the sharpest sword hanging over the PNM's hold on office.

The Government has faltered, too, in stimulating food production, which the ongoing drought has not helped. While there has been an increase in production of selected crops, too many hectares of land lie idle even as farmers are straining at the bits to get into food production. And the current water crisis has highlighted decades of neglect by successive governments, none more so than the PNM.

So Mr Manning's balance sheet of performance does not look good. Which begs the question: why call elections against this grim background? Last week I jokingly compared his weekly walkabouts to 'Mahal's' legendary escapades. The PM must know that the one hour he walks in a constituency spanning many miles cannot give him a true reflection of what's happening across the country.

I dare say I move among the grassroots more than he or any of his ministers. And what I feel, what I hear, are people seething with anger bordering on rage against all politicians. Unlike those who are chauffeured around, I walk the streets and talk with people, I use public transport quite often, and people tend to gravitate to me, maybe because they respect my fierce independence.

Well before the UNC's internal elections, people I thought were Basdeo Panday diehards were asking me: Mr Shah, why is Mr Panday clinging to leadership of the party? Why does he not leave with his dignity intact? I sensed then that Panday was in deep trouble. He didn't. He was still roaring, or braying. The landslide on January 24 silenced him like the proverbial lamb.

I feel a similar groundswell of anti-Manning sentiment among most people, many of whom I consider staunch PNMites. Manning must know that. His campaign lieutenants are worried. Even in the face of an opposition yet to organise itself, PNM campaigners are not exactly oozing confidence. So what's Mr Manning's real story?

I suspect his election gambit emanated from the darkness of a spiritual world where only the foolish dare enter. I envisage a cavern way up in the heights of Guanapo, the midnight hour, incense burning, a sepulchre for a pulpit. I see one woman-and a man. I hear voices, but I cannot understand some tongues in which they speak.

Spying from a safe distance, I see the man bow before the shadowy figure. 'Go Ye unto the masses,' the female voice thunders. 'Seek salvation from them. I shall smite Thine enemies. And if God wills it and they reject Thee, rest assured Thou hast a place at my side on the pulpit.' Amen.

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