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Wednesday 16 October 2019
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Party leadership contests

The conduct of the internal affairs of political parties may give some indication of the health of the political system. Where contests for offices in the party are concerned, it is assumed that democratic principles would underlie such contests.

Since members of a political party are presumed to subscribe to a common position on national policies and key issues, contests within the party necessarily focus on party concerns — vision, direction, institutional functionality and preparedness for office. Inevitably, the debate shifts to the attributes of candidates — their character, competence, credentials, background and track record to reform or re-energise the party for success.

Debate on personalities is a natural consequence which cannot be excluded from the contestation but may descend into character besmirching and unjustified allegations.

Two necessary conditions for a fair and democratic contest are:

(a) Unfettered freedom of expression and equal opportunity for all contestants, incumbents, as well as challengers, to communicate their views and positions to the voting membership whose identity and whereabouts should be known sufficiently in advance of polling day.

(b) Transparency and proper organisation of the voting process by an organ independent of current office holders with appropriate arrangements for monitoring operations on election day and the accuracy of the calculation of votes. Outlined above are ideal conditions on which contests should take place. In other words, there should be a level playing field. The reality, however, is that these conditions are hardly ever achieved or achieved adequately.

Incumbents have an advantage with avenues of communication, opportunities to influence voting by patronage, deployment of personnel in critical areas and dissemination of receptive propaganda to the rank and file. Four accusations have individually or collectively been levelled by incumbents against challengers:

(1) They have a lust for power but incumbents do not.

(2) They harbour a personal vendetta against the current incumbent leader.

(3) Their intent is to mash up the party (the latest illustration is by Kamla Persad-Bissessar as reported in the Newsday of 13/11/17).

(4) They are collaborators with enemy elements.

This scenario plays out in both major parties — PNM and UNC. The campaign by Patrick Manning against Dr Keith Rowley in 1996, Rowley against Penelope Beckles in 2011, Basdeo Panday against Ramesh Maharaj in 2001, and recently Persad-Bissessar against Vasant Bharath are relevant.

Then there is the issue of arrangements for elections for which responsibility the executive may assign a special body but its independence may be compromised as it is the executive headed by the incumbent which chooses the members of that body. The party’s secretariat provides logistical support in terms of compiling an accurate and updated list of eligible members with particulars of residence and contact information.

The secretariat, however, works on direction from the executive and the perennial complaint has been that accurate and comprehensive lists of members are never made available to challengers on time or at all. In view of the formidable and daunting obstacles faced by challengers, they have never, except with one exception in 2010, succeeded in defeating the incumbent. It is possible that after having assessed his chances in surmounting these obstacles, Bharath at the last minute has withdrawn from the contest.

The one occasion when the challenger comprehensively defeated the incumbent was in 2010 when Persad-Bissessar vanquished Panday for the position of political leader. There are various reasons attributed for this outcome which may be considered an aberration in view of the conjuncture of circumstances.

It is alleged that the incumbent’s credibility was low. He neither realised nor addressed the shifting sentiment on the ground. His campaign strategy was ill-conceived and heavy-handed, inducing sympathy for the challenger. He underestimated or ignored the cunning, craftiness and stealth of the challenger in collaborating with key officials at the head office in the preparation of final membership lists.

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