February 18, 2001
By Raffique Shah
I HAVE no doubt that in the wake of President Arthur Robinson's decision last week to go ahead and appoint the UNC's seven defeated candidates as senators, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday and Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj will now strut around the country as if they finally conquered Napoleon.
After all, having hounded the President for close to two months to authorise the unconventional, though not unconstitutional, appointments, and having chosen to go on the public warpath the very day on which the President relented, will be seen by the PM and AG almost as a military victory. You know, Napoleon meets his Waterloo—or Carapichaima.
Sadly, neither of the UNC principals has the intellect to understand when they have been drawn and quartered and left for the people to administer the coup de grace. They have been preaching to their mesmerised flocks that "there is no stopping the UNC now", that they have steam-rolled their way into former PNM strongholds and are on the verge of taking over the entire country. But Mr Robinson, in his own clever way, has outmanoeuvred them and not even the appointments of the seven losers as ministers will enhance their chances in the constituencies in which they lost.
The President has used the two-month impasse to do several things. Firstly, he delayed the appointment of Panday as Prime Minister, in my view not so much because of the EBC's delay in forwarding the official results of the December 11 election. He was signalling to the population that while the initial results (and later, the official EBC results) showed the UNC winning 19 seats, the widespread allegations of voter padding and other polling day irregularities suggested that the UNC used to gain power were indecent, maybe even disgusting. Such delay by a president was unprecedented, and it could not be written off on the basis on animosity between Panday and the President.
Then came the snubbing of the seven defeated candidates on the day on which he swore in other legitimate Cabinet members. That led to the two-month hiatus that the President used to the fullest to expose Panday's cavalier approach to government, to running the affairs of the country. The President is no fool. He knew that he was on soft legal ground from the time he decided not to make the appointments. But he also felt he commanded high moral ground in a battle to alert the population to Panday's mischief. And that he did achieve.
In the public exchanges that followed his action, Mr Robinson garnered more support than he ever did, maybe even more so than when he led the NAR to its 33-3 victory over the PNM in 1986. His addresses to the nation were well received by people who are not PNM supporters, people from the 40 per cent who, as Lloyd Best puts it, belong to "none of the above". One had only to read opinions in the newspapers and views on radio talk shows to understand just how the President's interpretation of the impasse had hit home, in a manner of speaking.
What must be of particular concern to Panday and the UNC (although I don't believe the PM and his sidekicks recognise this) is the number on non-PNMites who rallied around the President, or rather, his views on the matter.
At this stage of his life, President Robinson cannot be said to be seeking political support, since I am certain he harbours no thoughts of returning to active politics. But if—and I'm sure it did—his sound reasoning hit home, then there are so many thousands more among the population who are now dead set against Panday and the UNC. This, of course, runs counter to the UNC's position that it is gaining ground.
There is yet another danger for the UNC in the President's delayed decision. Of the seven losers who will soon take up their seats in the Senate, and some of them in Cabinet, who among them can be said to be capable of bringing more support to the party? Daphne Phillips was a member of the last Cabinet, but there was nothing of significance that she brought to the party and government.
That she polled 4,000 votes in Diego Martin West in spite of the goodwill that goes with power (URP and other forms of patronage) shows that she has brought nothing to the UNC.
While it was a gain of 2,400 on the UNC's 1995 performance, it was less than the NAR candidate polled in the same constituency (5,346) in 1991 when that party was on its death throes. And just what is the justification for bringing in Jennifer Jones-Kernahan, whose 4,000-odd votes were comparable to Phillips', defies logic.
Worse for the UNC, the moment these people—add Roy Augustus, Roodal Moonilal, Michael Als, Vincent Lasse and Stanley Ryan—get ministerial portfolios, power will "swell their heads", and they will become liabilities, not assets, to the UNC.
One already sees signs of destruction coming from Augustus, Moonilal and Als. They speak to people with a kind of contempt that goes with power. If the UNC had chosen to have them continue work in the respective constituencies without the privilege of power, the party might have gained more. As it stands, Panday's will has prevailed, but, in my view, to the detriment of the UNC.
But even as they crow over President Robinson relenting on the issue, Panday and company must note that the President acted under a form of duress. To quote him, "I have strongly advised and warned you against the option you have exercised. As President...I have considered it to be my responsibility to alert the population to the perils of the path on which you are prepared to embark." Having said that, the President then indicated he was "mindful of the growing sense of conflict in the nation", hence his statesman-like decision to back down and allow Panday to have his way.
Right-thinking people admire such action even if they do not agree with it. And they make sure they store all information on the impasse in their "hard drives". Panday has yet to face at least two court actions that may well see him driven from office. The other court matters are shameful for any government except the UNC.
One minister charged with an election-related offence, two facing the prospect of further criminal charges, and an ex-minister facing serious corruption charges. Really, does Panday hope to survive these crises and come out winning?
I think President Robinson has played Panday for a "patsy", and the PM does not recognise it. The exhilaration of this pyrric victory will be short lived, brought about by the same seven persons for whom he put the country in crisis.
Copyright © Raffique Shah