Next Monday, electors in a key governing party stronghold in central Trinidad will vote to fill a parliamentary seat left vacant by the resignation of former National Security Minister Austin Jack Warner. While this is no general election, critics say the poll serve as a key litmus test on the performance of the corruption-tainted governing People’s Partnership (PP) coalition midway into its five-year term.
The seat in Chaguanas West, a traditional stronghold of the Hindu-led coalition, was previously held by Warner before he quit the cabinet and party chairmanship in virtual disgrace in April over alleged misuse of funds during the decades that he had served as the vice president of FIFA, the world governing body for soccer.
A bit miffed that he was let go amid public calls for his head by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Warner decided to form his own Independent Liberal Party and run for the very same seat against the very coalition that he is credited with largely putting together to win government in May 2010—the one he so heavily financed from personal funds and millions through donations.
The move has triggered warnings from the prime minister that his real aim “is an attempt to bring down your duly elected government. Mark my words,” the prime minister said at a recent public meeting.
Race has also jumped into the campaign with disaffected former Justice Minister Herbert Volney accusing the prime minister and members of being part of what he says is a “Hindu cabal” that is running Blacks and non-Hindus from the Cabinet, and of appealing to race to ensure Warner is beaten, destroyed and finished as a political force in the oil-rich twin island republic with Tobago.
Warner is an Afro-Trinidadian. He is 70.
Volney argued that certain words being used by Indo PP campaigners are meant to appeal to race. “Contextually, the ‘protect dharma’ injunction was meant to be a mantra to vote for the Hindu party, and it would in turn keep you covered, nothing more.” He has since joined forced with Warner.
The partnership is desperate to hold onto the crucial safe seat to avoid the embarrassment that will result if Warner and his band of supporters manage to defeat an entire government in a traditional stronghold. A loss may also signal that the coalition will face an uphill task at winning upcoming local government elections, expected by October, and general elections in two years.
It is already under pressure for widespread corruption and faces criticism about the emergence of a class of very rich people who are close friends and family of the ruling elite since it came to power.
Whatever the outcome of next week’s elections, one thing is clear: Warner would have inflicted serious damage on the Partnership and will likely continue to be a political opponent for the foreseeable future.