31 Mar 2010

Lashed to the mast of a sinking ship

TWO key points arise from Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s speech to last Saturday’s PNM special convention at Chaguaramas where he put the party on an election footing, saying he agrees with the Opposition that a general election is due and ordering candidate selection to begin.

Firstly, despite all the dramatics of Manning’s speech and all the accompanying “heat” from the crowd, notably he did not actually announce any election date.

Until he does so, some might argue that his speech does not actually commit him to anything and so might possibly even be discounted as mere fluff.

As things hang, there seem to be three possible outcomes to Manning’s speech.

It might be one big bluff by a man, widely unpopular in the country including among many PNM voters, to try to rally the party’s base to his side. In the face of a general election, all differences are to be put aside and the party closes ranks according to traditional PNM discipline. Alternatively, he might actually intend to hold an imminent or “snap” general election, if he calculates that the PNM is still a relatively strong election machine in the face of a still-split Opposition that however last week agreed in principle to fight the next election in an as yet unspecified UNC/COP pact. This decision will also largely depend on whether Manning thinks he can “ride out” his current woes such as the Udecott scandal (and Uff Report), public anger over Public Service layoffs, and Treasury woes, or decide to gamble on the moment before things get worse.

Another possibility is that Manning might actually be hedging and steering a narrow path between the two options of bluffing and holding a snap election.

It may be that in order to rally the faithful, he does genuinely intend to start the candidate selection process, and so keep the party on a high alert, but not call the election for the next one year, two years or even beyond.

Until he calls the election date — which by tradition he does wearing the hat of Prime Minister and in the parliamentary chamber — no one can tell his plans.

The second point clearly coming out of Manning’s speech is that whatever his timeline for an election turns out to be, in one fell swoop he has tightened his grip on the party. As political leader, the PNM constitution gives him immense sway over the party, including having the final say over the selection of candidates. If the current Cabinet is largely made of political neophytes, then his speech of Saturday serves to crack the whip on anyone thinking of raising their head above the parapets to question his leadership.

It is a fact that much of the popular anger at the Government is not directed at the PNM as an institution but at the person of Manning. Many people are upset at his $240 million Prime Minister’s Residence, his use of the national coat-of-arms as a licence plate, his appointment of his wife as a minister, the Draft Constitution that gives him the powers of Head of State, and the list goes on.

So, in supposedly putting the PNM into election mode, he has not just tightened his grip on the party, but imposed his unpopular self upon them.

Rather than offering to be cast overboard to save his shipmates from the swirling wrath, Manning has lashed himself to the mast of the PNM ship, seemingly determined to bind the party to his own personal fate.

So he has shut off one of the options hitherto open to the electorate — to vote for a PNM headed by someone other by Manning.

Of course, a further issue arising from Manning’s move is to open up the whole question of de facto de-selection, or rather non-selection, of sitting MPs, to stand again in the next general election.

Now away from the giddy mood of the Chaguaramas Convention Centre, PNM members, like the rest of the population, would do well to ponder the deep implications of Manning’s announcement. Meanwhile we await to see if he will put his money where his mouth is and actually name the election date.