Jack Warner - Epitaph or triumph?
By Tony Fraser, writing from Port of Spain
Trinidad and Tobago’s majority United National Congress (UNC), in the four-party coalition People's Partnership (PP) government, is agonising over whether or not to allow Jack Warner to contest a by-election for the seat he resigned.
An opinion poll (Sunday Guardian, 19 May 2013) finds the former Fifa vice-president to be far and away the most popular candidate to contest his old Chaguanas West constituency.
However, political logic indicates quite clearly that the UNC could not possibly select Mr Warner to run on its behalf for his old parliamentary seat.
After all, he stepped down as an MP and as national security minister after an investigation by the football federation of the Americas (Concacaf) found that he had violated Fifa rules.
Selecting Mr Warner as candidate would also go against the grain of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s decision to let him stand down, according to political analyst Prof Selwyn Ryan.
Prof Ryan writes that the prime minister did not merely accept the resignation of her high-performing minister, but, in fact, “constructively fired” him from all three of the positions that he occupied: minister of national security, UNC party chairman and MP for Chaguanas West.
That was strong action to take against the man who, more than anyone else, was responsible for her emerging as prime minister.
So if she agrees with the Concacaf Integrity Committee – chaired by the respected former attorney general and chief justice of Barbados, Sir David Simmons – that Mr Warner has serious questions to answer about matters involving hundreds of millions of dollars, how can she then appoint him as a fit and proper candidate to represent the UNC?
The answer seems obvious. But politics in Trinidad and Tobago never follows a straight line.
Many years ago, the UNC’s founder and inspirational source for two decades, Basdeo Panday, stated that “politics has its own morality”.
Mr Warner commented in the same vein in an effort to explain his own contradictory positions on issues when he said: “Yesterday was yesterday and today is today.”
In other words, what was said and done in the past has no connection with what has to be said and done in the present.
Jack Warner was the most popular of the 41 Members of Parliament elected in the May 2010 general election.
As for his ministerial career, opinion polls carried in the newspapers here found him to be the highest achiever in the cabinet.
And, contrary to the normal pattern of MPs becoming unpopular soon after being elected, Mr Warner remains the ideal of a representative to his constituents.
Clearly he has not fallen from grace in their eyes, despite the contents of the Concacaf Integrity Committee report and the decades of Fifa-related allegations against him – all of which he has strenuously denied over the years.
Mr Warner’s former constituents have always shown their strong support for him when interviewed on national television.
“We don’t want nobody else here”; “Look how he fix all we roads”; “He does come to all we puja [Hindu prayers]”; “Nobody ever go to him with a problem and ent [ain’t] get a good response”: these are some of their comments, reflecting the nature of his popularity.
So if the UNC does not name Jack Warner as its candidate for the by-election, he may well stand as an independent candidate, although he has not said so openly.
In modern political times, independents have performed badly in elections. But if he could reverse that trend, he would become the first Trinidadian of African descent to win a seat in a predominantly Indo-Trinidad constituency without the support of the UNC.
The blow would be by no means fatal to the UNC. But it could have debilitating short and medium-term negative political and electoral consequences for the party. And this with two elections in the offing.
“As an independent candidate, [Mr Warner] stands a good chance of winning, so what it really comes down to is representation and whether these candidates can represent people,” says University of the West Indies lecturer in political science, Dr Maukesh Basdeo.
Another senior UWI lecturer, Dr Bishnu Ragoonath, says: “Because of [Mr] Warner’s hard work in representing his constituents, he could win the seat if he fought as an independent candidate.”
But he adds: “Our system of governance is based on party politics, so people will continue to support their respective parties and not individuals.
“Politics is changing, but the change is very slow. People may begin to think that their party is not giving them what they want and so they will vote independent individuals, but I do not think this has happened.”
In the context of Trinidad’s electorate, divided sharply between people of Indian and African descent, with Chaguanas West being the heartland of Indo-Trinidad, Jack Warner’s popularity in the constituency is unprecedented in Trinidad’s political minefield of race.
So far, the former Fifa vice-president is not even acknowledging that it is possible that the UNC could fail to select him as a candidate.
Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar has also been cagey, saying only that the UNC candidate selection committee will meet and make their choice.
As political leader of the UNC, she acknowledges that Mr Warner has a right, as does any other member, to be screened as a potential candidate.
But asked about the possibility of Mr Warner standing in his own right, the prime minister noted that the party’s constitution did not allow UNC members to contest as independents.
“Therefore he or she could be expelled from the party,” the Trinidad Guardian concluded from these comments.
“The prime minister could not have been speaking about me or even to me when she made that statement,” says Jack Warner.
He believes he does not “fit in any one of the categories of persons who can be expelled”.
Warning the hierarchy
“I am a life member of the UNC,” said Mr Warner, suggesting that his position in the party is secure.
But apparently as a warning to the party’s hierarchy, he invokes another controversial member of the UNC, Ramesh Maharaj.
He reminded the UNC of that time in 2001 when Mr Maharaj broke away from the UNC, formed his own party and “caused the UNC to lose the government” .
The analysis then was that, while the Maharaj challenge to the UNC was unsuccessful, his party split the vote in critical constituencies and allowed the opposition People’s National Movement to secure those seats.
So could Mr Warner run as an independent and beat the UNC candidate?
The UNC’s leader of government business in the House of Representatives, Dr Roodal Moonilal, thinks that not even someone of the stature and popularity of Jack Warner can achieve that.
“The society is settled on party politics and it is difficult for independents to get a foothold. I don’t have much hope for independent candidates,” Dr Moonilal said.
For his part, UNC deputy leader Dr Suruj Rambachan said: “I think it is very nice for people to go up as independents and come forward to fight elections. It is a good thing for the country and the democracy.
“But the party is always bigger than the individual.”
Individual over party?
Jack Warner has already started vigorous campaigning in Chaguanas West, where he received in 2010 the highest number of votes (18,000-plus) ever won by any candidate in a constituency in Trinidad and Tobago.
If he were to pull off one of his Houdini acts and win, it would leave the UNC, and the whole PP government, in a vulnerable position.
The PP is still bruised from the trouncing it received in the Tobago House of Assembly election in January, when the opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) won all 12 seats.
Any fresh upset would further embolden the PNM in campaigning for local elections due in October.
Jack Warner’s possible candidacy as an independent could be a Caribbean test case: the individual over the party.
If the constituents of Chaguanas West were to vote him into office again, even after all the allegations, that could be a statement of what constituents want for representative politics.
However, there is another view surfacing: that Jack Warner, in seeking to defy the odds by confronting the UNC and Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar on their home territory, may be biting off more than he can chew.
If this turns out to be so, then Trinidad and Tobago politics may be witnessing the demise of one of the most colourful and controversial political figures, one who also left a large footprint in the politics of football in the Caribbean.
“Whatever the lens used, we are embarked on a rough political ride, the outcome of which is difficult to predict,” says political analyst Prof Ryan.