CWR Student’s Forum
Trinidad and Tobago Elects First Female Prime Minister
By Dervedia Thomas
Trinidad and Tobago made glass shattering history on May 24, when the first female head of government was elected into office. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, a politician for 24 years scored a landslide victory against the ruling party in a snap election. Persad-Bissessar, 57, successfully combined five opposing parties into a coalition that she called, ‘The People’s Partnership”which she led to victory.
Her mantra was “We Shall Rise,” and her campaign capitalized on the perception that the ruling party was out of touch with what people wanted, thus she promised to deliver a more people centered system of government.
Their overwhelming victory came in light of the fact that the election was called two and a half years earlier than the ruling party was constitutionally bound to do, and less than six months after she was elected as the political leader of her party.
Her victory also lead to the demise of Former Prime Minister Patrick Manning who was forced to resign as political leader of his party; the People’s National Movement; the oldest party in the country, because he lead them to defeat in an election that was not necessary according to the constitution.
Countries like Trinidad and Tobago follow the Wesminister System inherited by their colonial founders. In this system, the Prime Minister is the head of government unlike countries such as the United States and Mexico where the President is in charge of running the country.
Persad-Bissessar’s battle to achieve victory was one filled with irony. Starting with the internal party elections; a process similar to the American primaries, this woman shocked the entire country by being selected as the political leader and prime ministerial candidate for her party, The United National Congress (UNC).
Shock is the most accurate word to use, because she was not only the first female leader of the party, she also defeated her mentor and party founder Basdeo Panday for the position that he has held from the party’s inception. Panday was very instrumental in Persad-Bissessar’s career. She was his right hand, and even served as his lawyer when he faced allegations of corruption. In 1995, when Panday himself was victorious at the polls, he appointed her as the first female Attorney General and also appointed her to act as Prime Minister in his absence.
Unable to achieve victory at the polls in the last two elections, as well as allegations of corruption, Panday’s popularity as a leader waned. When internal elections came around in 2009, Persad-Bissessar was one of two people challenging him for the position. She maintains that it was not out of disloyalty, but it was because of overwhelming requests from supporters who wanted to see their party win an election.
It was a fight from the start.
The very charismatic Panday who began his career as a trade union leader and has always had the affection of the grass roots East Indian community, fought hard to keep his position. Over the years he has been famous for saying that if you oppose him, he would banish you to the political cemetery. This has proven to be true for over 30 years. No member of his party who has challenged him in elections or otherwise, has ever been successful in politics without him, at least until now.
In the lead up to the internal elections, Panday, 77, did not shy away from personal attacks and mudslinging. He will be remembered for this rousing statement, “If I am in a fight with a Lion, feel sorry for the Lion,” he later added “or the Lioness.” He even went as far as to accuse Persad-Bissessar of being a drunk and recalled statements made by one of her supporters that she fell down on a statue of Mahatma Ghandi in a drunken stupor during a cultural event. The fact that Persad-Bissessar is of East Indian descent made those statements even more alarming.
Despite his attempts, Panday was unsuccessful. The party members believed that his right hand woman was the right person to lead the party to victory.
The headline in the national newspaper read “Kamla is Boss,” a play on a popular calypso in the 80’s called “Woman is Boss.”
Her victory is also ironic in light of the fact that in the 2007, she was excluded from the leadership council of an alliance put together by Panday to contest the 2007 general elections. She was excluded in favor of party defectors with who recently came back into the fold despite her experience acting as Prime Minister and as Attorney General.
Party supporters and in particular women, were angry and expected her to defect to a new party that was built mainly of members from her party who opposed Panday’s leadership. In an address to supporters at a public rally she said. “I want to tell you here today, that you are not dealing with a woman scorned, but a woman in love. I love my party and my country with a great love and I am here to stay.”
Though poetic, many of her supporters were still angry and saw her statement as an example of a “Battered Woman Syndrome,” because she continued to support a party and a political leader that pushed her into the background.
Her victory in the internal elections can be seen as vindication for her decision to stay in the party, but despite her victory, she still had to fight Panday who refused to give up the position of Opposition Leader. By this time however, many of the elected Members of Parliament that supported him in the internal elections as well as the senators, switched allegiances and he was outvoted. He still fought to the end and even refused to give up his chair to the new Opposition Leader.
Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s victory is certainly an inspiration to all women who at times serve in the background of powerful men. Her loyalty to her party was seen as her weakness but it has proved to have been her strength. She was the stone that the builder’s rejected. Now she is the chief corner stone in the rebuilding of a nation.