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Sunday, August 7, 2016

With the UNC opening its new headquarters last Wednesday and the political leader, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, talking about a building fund, it is now apparent that the two major parties in this country are now moving to secure the next phase of their respective futures.

The PNM being the older of the two having been formed in 1956 by Dr Eric Williams has had a headquarters in Port-of-Spain at Tranquillity Street called “Balisier House.” There is considerable tradition associated with the venue and a history that allows it to have an institutional presence in the minds of thousands of party supporters.

On the other hand, the UNC that was formed out of the fracture inside of the NAR in 1989 by Basdeo Panday had largely operated out of the Rienzi Complex in Couva. This was an arrangement that had its roots in the ULF that was formed in 1975 and continued to exist until its immersion in the NAR in 1986. 

There was the original concept of a political party that had trade union roots with Basdeo Panday, Raffique Shah, Joe Young and George Weekes being the leading lights in the ULF. In many respects, the leadership of Basdeo Panday came to epitomise both the ULF and later the UNC. 

Political change in terms of leadership and the capture or loss of power brought with it the pains of evolution that many find difficult to accept. For the PNM the death of Eric Williams, its first leader, was a momentous event because there was a certain invincibility about Williams that many associated with the continuous victories of the PNM in general elections. The transfer of power to George Chambers in 1981 and the defeat of the PNM by the NAR in 1986 created major challenges for the party before the UNC was even born.

Indeed, it was the emergence of the UNC in 1989 together with the revival of the PNM under Patrick Manning that created the two-party system that the country never had until the 1991 general election. The NAR faded from the national limelight, first into a regional party in Tobago and subsequently into oblivion after the elevation of ANR Robinson to the presidency and his subsequent retirement from active public life.

In essence, the country has only really had a two-party system since the birth of the UNC and within a period of 21 years, the party was able to capture power three times at general elections in 1995, 2000 and 2010. The ability of the UNC to provide a realistic challenge to the PNM in the post-1991 period has brought a rotation of power that is the hallmark of functioning democracies.

The PNM is now on its fourth leader, while the UNC is only on its third. Unlike the PNM who had its first change of leader by virtue of the death of its founder in 1981, the UNC experienced its first change of leader by the consent of Panday to Winston Dookeran unopposed in 2005. With Dookeran’s resignation as UNC leader in 2006, the first contested change came at the hands of its internal voters in 2010 with the election of Kamla Persad-Bissessar who was re-elected by those voters in 2015.

With a former leader still around nursing the wounds of leadership change in 2010, it is inevitable that Mrs Persad-Bissessar will have many criticisms thrown her way in the aftermath of that leadership contest. Her decision to have leadership elections so soon after losing the general election last year seemed to catch some of her opponents by surprise however, she has so far made every effort to maintain party unity.

Dr Rowley could have had the same challenge as Mrs Persad-Bissessar had Mr Manning not fallen ill in 2012. 

In many respects, the All-Trinidad General Workers Union may have done the UNC a huge favour by having a very public termination of their month-to-month rent arrangement at the Rienzi Complex. The sugar industry is now dead and the UNC has grown out of its original moorings. Moving out of the union’s headquarters and finding its own home may be a rite of passage whose time had come.

The PNM is also at a stage where it is taking its development to another level by launching a building fund for the construction of the new Balisier House next door to the current one. The UNC is also talking about a building fund for the construction of its own headquarters which may not necessarily be in Couva.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar spoke of a renaissance for the party last Wednesday in their move which may allow them a certain flexibility for future development that can give the party a sense of purpose during its opposition years.

With both the PNM and the UNC building for the future in very literal terms, there is also an upside to the democracy of the country. That is that democracy is on a good pathway as new party headquarters in concrete and steel, on both sides, may actually cement the future stability of our democracy in a very positive way.


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