Page 3 Kidnapping / Elections / Us
Election Battle On - Sunday 22, September-2002
by KEN ALI Nation News
PORT-OF-SPAIN – Trinidadians and Tobagonians, bruised by election fatigue with three polls in 20 months, now have their focus on the October 7 contest riveted by two unfolding blockbuster issues.
The campaign for the general election, which began with seeming voter apathy, has quickly turned absorbing and emotive, and is attracting large and boisterous political audiences and keen media and regional interest.
The issues that have most captured imagination are that founded on the wave of bloody crimes, including high profile kidnappings, and the laying of criminal charges against Basdeo Panday, 69-year-old leader of one of the frontline political parties.
As the campaign races into the final two weeks, it now appears that voter appeal has been aroused for what is expected to be yet another cliffhanger election. Scientific surveys are pointing to a ding-dong battle between the incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM), led by Prime Minister Patrick Manning, and Panday’s United National Congress (UNC).
The two major campaign issues have excited the respective political camps, who are banking on the themes continuing to resonate well with their supporters and the some ten per cent of the electorate who are considered swing voters and who may hold the balance of power in marginal constituencies.
Panday’s UNC has adopted the motif: A Nation In Crisis, to articulate its anti-crime crusade. Public speakers, especially Panday, and media advertisements have been voicing alarm about the state of criminal activity, which includes several abductions of members of business-owning families.
There are reports of family-owned medium-sized businesses being shutdown or downgraded, while members relocate to North American safe havens. Panday has pleaded with the businessmen to stay at home. Manning has assured that his government is aggressive in its anti-crime thrust.
But attempts by the prime minister to placate the country appeared to have been partly thwarted – at least symbolically – by a surprise deal with Yasin Abu Bakr and his fellow 1990 attempted coup-makers of Jamaat Al Muslimeen. Arguing that it was time for the country to put the past behind it, Manning revealed that the state would legally free up disputed lands west of Port-of-Spain, which were occupied by the Muslimeen.
A deal for the granting of the land was struck during a secret meeting between Manning and Bakr, at the PNM’s city headquarters. Following that pact, Bakr announced electoral support for the PNM.
The prime minister quickly faced an embarrassing national flare-up, with businessmen, including party investors, damning the decision to make concessions to a fundamentalist body whose insurrection had led to about 30 deaths and had traumatised the then-nation’s leaders and the entire country. Some Port-of-Spain businessmen noted that they are yet to be compensated for the devastation of their buildings during the days of social turmoil.
With growing public unease, Manning withdrew the land deal, conceding: “The public feels the matter should be handled in a different way.” He admitted: “I am responding to public opinion.”
The PM’s back-track was clearly a cruel blow for his political party in the midst of a close election battle. The PNM appeared to be further rocked by disclosures in New York’s Daily News, based upon a United States Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) probe, that the Muslimeen wanted to fly a plane from Libya into the World Trade Centre in last year’s September 11 terrorist attack.
Manning, who heads the National Security Council, responded that he was not aware of any ties between the Muslimeen and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. He then interjected: “Even if that were so, that does not mean to say you reject support from whatever quarter it comes in terms of votes. You don’t.”
Bakr remained characteristically tough-talking, insisting that the land belonged to the Muslimeen and that “anybody who wants to continue with this matter wants to propagate unrest in the society.”
Sensing a godsend political issue, Panday accused Manning’s PNM of an “unholy alliance” with the Muslimeen, adding that the government of the day did not have the morality to seek to counter crime. He charged that the Muslimeen lands would eventually be handed over after the general election.
The Express newspaper editorialised that Manning “gifted Mr Panday a sizzling campaign issue”, and indeed, the UNC leader has turned the matter into his virtual election road march.
The entire issue has reawakened anxieties about a most disturbing period in the country’s recent past, and suggested that the wounds and scars are still raw and that healing is painful and patient. Even frontline government minister Dr Keith Rowley urged that the Muslimeen apologise for the coup bid and renounce any unconstitutional endeavour.
But while Panday was making political hay, he was set back by three criminal charges pertaining to his alleged failure to declare details of a London bank account held jointly with his wife, Oma. Integrity legislation requires full disclosure of relevant details.
The source of the funds – said to be a substantial sum – has been a subject of intense national scrutiny in recent months. Panday has coughed up several explanations, none of which has appeased critics on the issue.
The UNC leader is to appear in court on November 27, and faces a fine and a two-year jail term. This is the second general election within a decade he is contesting with criminal charges pending against him. On the eve of the 1995 general election, sexual misconduct were levelled against him.
He was freed on the charges after the election, by which time he had become prime minister.
In typical style, Panday has adopted a posture of injured innocence, claiming he is being persecuted for speaking against the Muslimeen’s supposed ties to the PNM. “They are trying to stop me,” he has since been thundering at nightly public meetings, “but they would fail.”
Manning has discounted allegations that the charges were a political set up. In fact, the PNM leader is using the issue as a lightning rod to his allegations of financial excesses during Panday’s six-year tenure as prime minister.
Indeed, the PNM’s campaign is revolving around claims of probity in national office, which it is contrasting to a spree of claims of corruption and financial mismanagement of Panday’s regime.
It is not yet known if the laying of the charges has hurt the UNC electoral chances. An earlier poll had indicated that just six per cent of those surveyed placed corruption as a major issue. A whopping 68 per cent had named crime at the top of the national hit parade of contentious matters.
For its part, the UNC has sought to bolster its campaign by the candidacy of Winston Dookeran, the affable and academically-minded former governor of the Central Bank. Dookeran, who is well liked for his easy manner and intellectual depth, has been preaching the virtues of “getting our politics right”, warning against Trinidad falling into the precipice of other plural societies in which race relations declined abysmally.
With the campaign now at a peak, Panday is also hammering a call for the presence of international election observers, noting that, as prime minister, he had brought watchdogs for the 2000 and 2001 polls even without appeals from Manning. “If he wants to have transparency,” said Panday, “he will do that on his own.”
As the campaign continues to move at a frenetic pace, it is likely to take several sharp twists and turns before polling day.