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AN EARLY GENERAL ELECTION?

Published: 
Sunday, July 16, 2017

Last Tuesday at the Conversations with the Prime Minister event in Point Fortin, Prime Minister Keith Rowley made the following statement:

“You know that I am the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. I am the only person here who can call the elections.”

When pressed further after this statement was made, the crowd responded with a resounding “no” to the Prime Minister’s query about whether or not an early general election should be called. The Prime Minister then said that that response settled the matter.

This was a most bizarre intervention. Whenever prime ministers have called early general elections in this country in the past, it is usually because there has been some internal rumbling inside the government that has led to it.

In 1995, Patrick Manning called a general election for November 6 that year after announcing the dissolution of Parliament at a sitting of the House of Representatives on October 6. The back story to that was the sequence of events that started with the removal of Ralph Maraj as Foreign Affairs minister and his demotion to the position of minister in the Office of the Prime Minister in May 1995. Knowlson Gift was then appointed minister of Foreign Affairs and shortly afterwards, a Sunday newspaper published a story about his personal finances that led him to tender his resignation after only ten days in office. That led to a further Cabinet reshuffle which saw Gordon Draper being made foreign minister. Ralph Maraj was subsequently made minister of public utilities in the Cabinet reshuffle that followed Gift’s sudden departure.

In July/August 1995, more controversy arose when the Government sought to remove Maraj’s sister, Occah Seapaul, from her position as speaker of the House of Representatives. That controversy led to an amendment to the Constitution, the suspension of Seapaul, and the resignation of Maraj from the Cabinet. In September 1995, Maraj also tendered his resignation as the MP for San Fernando West which created the need for a by-election by December 1995.

With all of this going on inside the government, prime minister Manning opted for a November 1995 general election (even though general election was not due until early 1997) instead of a December 1995 by-election in San Fernando West. The result was a 17-17-2 outcome with the PNM losing its majority. A UNC/NAR coalition government was formed in November 1995.

Internal turmoil in the PNM administration of prime minister Manning in 2010 caused him to call an early general election in May 2010. There was fallout from his dismissal of Dr Keith Rowley from the Cabinet in 2008 and controversies associated with Calder Hart and the Uff Commission of Inquiry.

When Leader of the Opposition, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, brought a motion of no confidence against Manning that was to be debated on April 9, 2010, he advised the President to dissolve Parliament at midnight on April 8. Once again, the cause of the early dissolution was internal turmoil in the government.

Fast forward to Point Fortin last Tuesday and one wonders why Prime Minister Rowley would float a trial balloon about an early general election. It is not the kind of discussion that one would ever dream would have come up at such a forum only 22 months into office when a general election is not due until the end of 2020.

There is no doubt that there has been obvious embarrassment caused to the Prime Minister by the Marlene McDonald fiasco and the aftermath of that will have left a bitter taste in the mouths of PNM supporters.

Coupled with this was the prior announcement that the Prime Minister had written to the Leader of the Opposition, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, asking for the two of them to meet. That can also be a signal of internal difficulties.

In April 1978, Dr Eric Williams reached out to then leader of the opposition Basdeo Panday for the two of them to meet to discuss the issue of the amendment to the Constitution to create a crossing-the-floor penalty for anyone who changed their political allegiance in the House of Representatives.

Williams’ strategy was based on the premise that both he and Panday would have common ground on this issue as earlier in 1977 there had been a fracture in the ULF that saw Panday being removed as Leader of the Opposition and replaced by Raffique Shah. On March 31, 1978, Shah resigned as Leader of the Opposition and Panday was subsequently reappointed Leader of the Opposition.

Also on March 31, 1978, Hector Mc Clean resigned as minister of Works and Transport in the Williams Cabinet as well as from the PNM and renounced any signed and undated letter that he had given to the Prime Minister before the general election as a condition of his candidacy for the PNM in the Arouca seat in 1976.

Williams and Panday did a deal that led to a swift amendment of the Constitution in April 1978 that penalized any MP for crossing the floor.

What does Rowley have in mind today and is an early election his fallback position?