ACTIVIST Devant Maharaj has claimed a recording of an off-air conversation between UNC leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and party whip David Lee was proof of collusion in the running of the upcoming UNC internal election, but Opposition Senator Jayanti Lutchmedial flatly denied that and accused Maharaj of grasping at straws.
Maharaj, a former agriculture minister, is challenging Persad-Bissessar for the post of party leader, as is Vasant Bharath, a former trade minister. Nomination day is Sunday.
Maharaj on Saturday sent media houses a statement and a recording of an excerpt of a briefing the day before broadcast over Zoom and Facebook.
In it, Persad-Bissessar told Opposition whip David Lee about working until 3 am with lawyers to produce a manual.
Maharaj viewed this as meaning a manual for the UNC Internal Management Election Committee and alleged collusion in the election.
However, Lutchmedial said Persad-Bissessar was actually referring to a set of guidelines for her election day poll staff, including covid19 protocols.
Maharaj wrote a letter (dated Saturday) to Ramesh Persad Maharaj calling on him to resign as committee chairman along with other committee members, saying anyone would think Persad-Bissessar had said she helped draft the UNC’s election rules.
Saying election transparency was a serious issue, Maharaj said neither Ramesh Persad Maharaj nor Persad-Bissessar had acted with haste and urgency to deny the latter had played a role with unnamed lawyers in drafting the election rules. “I am therefore forced to conclude that there is indeed toxic collusion between the Internal Management Election Committee and Mrs Persad-Bissessar in the conduct of this election unless you can reasonably convince me otherwise.”
Maharaj also alleged last week Bharath had complained that potential candidates on his slate had submitted nomination forms for scrutiny by the elections committee, only later to be contacted by Persad-Bissessar or her supporters trying to dissuade them from contesting the elections. He said if this was true, how did election rivals obtain copies of nomination forms given to the committee, saying this supports the perception of collusion between the committee and a particular candidate.
Maharaj said no candidate must be involved in drafting election rules, yet the recording of Persad-Bissessar suggested she and her lawyers were involved in drafting a manual on the day before it was released.
“I am not satisfied that you and/or your committee can discharge your functions as election chairman in a fair and impartial manner.
“I have also been legally advised that if you and your committee have facilitated the involvement of a candidate in obtaining an unfair advantage in this election process, then you and your committee can be sued in your personal capacity for such conduct.” Saying he was no stranger to court, Maharaj said he was retaining lawyers to institute action if necessary.
“I call upon you and your committee to immediately resign. You and your committee have 24 hours to arrive at your decision.”
Lutchmedial, who had attended the Friday briefing, issued a statement on Saturday.
“Bits and pieces of a conversation taking place between the Opposition Leader and MP David Lee whilst audio glitches were being worked out at yesterday's press conference are being used to make mischief.
“All candidates who aspire to lead the UNC should repose faith and confidence in the party's processes and procedures which are in compliance with the constitution.”
She said the committee members have no direct interest in the election outcome but were well respected nationally.
“It is most unfortunate that in an attempt to ascribe context Mrs Persad-Bissessar's conversation, one candidate appears to be questioning the integrity of the committee members.”
Lutchmedial said Persad-Bissessar has separated her role as Opposition Leader and a UNC candidate in the election.
“To this end, she has developed a manual with guidelines for persons on her slate in the internal UNC election and for their support persons who would be trained as polling day agents.”
These include covid19 guidelines for her team and supporters to ensure everyone's safety and comply with all national laws and Ministry of Health guidance on election day.
“These were discussed on Tuesday night with the assistance of legal advisers familiar with election proceedings, myself included. As I was present at the press conference, the Opposition Leader made a passing reference to the settling of the manual with lawyers late into the night whilst conversing with MP Lee in my presence.
“This is the only manual that Mrs Persad-Bissessar has had input into and to suggest otherwise is to cast aspersions on our independent management committee, which is both unfair and unwarranted.”
Lutchmedial said Persad-Bissessar has tried to ensure the internal elections are free and fair, and no candidate has an unfair advantage.
“Any candidate who has a difficulty with the rules issued by the Elections Management Committee can raise those matters directly with the chairman.
“Those rules in my humble opinion are incapable of giving anyone, incumbent or otherwise, an unfair advantage in the internal elections.”
Lutchmedial told Newsday the committee’s members were well-respected individuals, under attorney Ramesh Persad Maharaj.
Saying it was unfortunate Maharaj’s complaint was based on picking up bits and pieces of someone’s private conversation, Lutchmedial said, “I think this is a non-issue, grasping at straws.”
Sunday Newsday was unable to contact Persad-Bissessar or Lee.
However, Maharaj, in a fresh statement, rejected Lutchmedial’s remarks as “the weakest of weak explanations.”
He said, “If there is indeed such an internal manual being developed I challenge the Senator to produce it immediately without hesitation.” He asked why was a manual involving covid19 guidelines drafted by attorneys and not doctors. Maharaj said Lutchmedial missed the point to say the election rules do not favour anyone specific, alleging the issue is of a candidate instructing the committee.
He said the fact of Lutchmedial responding to his claims, not Ramesh Persad Maharaj, suggested collusion.
Maharaj said Lutchmedial was silent on his claims the UNC leadership had contacted potential rival candidates to withdraw.
“I must also ask, why has Ms Persad-Bissessar not responded to these allegations?
“If Kamla Persad-Bissessar has an interest in fair elections then I call upon her to appoint independent election observers. This is the standard which she asked for nationally; why does she not think they are good enough for the UNC membership?”
He again urged the committee to step down. “I say to them, do not let the darkness of dictatorship shroud the light of democracy. I will continue to fight for free and fair elections within the UNC.”