Politics with elections in focus Scenes in Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados

By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
September 2, 2001

TRINIDAD and Tobago chalked up its 39th milestone of political independence last Friday with the twin-island republic in a mood of expectancy that a snap general election could take place within the next three months.

But voters are certainly not excited about having to trek back to polling stations less than a year after returning the incumbent United National Congress (UNC) for a second five-year term with a 19-17 parliamentary majority.

Jamaica had earlier marked its 39th independence anniversary against the backdrop of the horrifying killings and violence in the depressed, garrison communities of West Kingston.

After much political squabblings, there was long-awaited meeting of Prime Minister P.J. Patterson and Opposition Leader Edward Seaga to come up with a "peace" plan in a climate of lingering uncertainty over further conflicts.

A climate of peace is fundamental for a significant recovery from the damages the images of criminal violence and social upheavals may have created abroad for Jamaica's vital tourism sector.

And with continuing speculations of a likely early general election - not due before December 2002 - both Patterson and Seaga would have a stake in ensuring the peace of country comes first to party.

Regrettably, however, desirable as it is, this peace may prove as elusive as hopes in Trinidad and Tobago to avoid fresh national election this year, and at a time when the governing UNC is making a sorry spectacle of public washing of its dirty political linens.

Not just some leading party figures and senior cabinet ministers, but the Prime Minister and UNC leader himself, Basdeo Panday, seem to be suffering from a 'foot and mouth' problem that, unless held in check, could have serious negative consequences at the expected snap poll.

Masking Differences
When it comes to masking differences among well-known and leading elements of a ruling party, the UNC can perhaps learn a thing or two from the Barbados Labour Party (BLP).

It may be a combination of astute leadership by Prime Minister Owen Arthur, who benefits from a more friendly, or less critical media than Prime Minister Panday; a reluctance by his leading colleagues to give public expression to some of the personal and policy differences they speak about in private. Or it may have something to do with the Barbadian political culture.

But reports of the so-called "disagreeables, disenchanted and favourites" within the ranks of the BLP are not all that a well kept secret as the ruling party's 'spin doctorsí and media 'disciples' would like others to believe.

Of course, differences are normal in any democratic party. In fact, they are healthy, if the kind of convulsions being experienced by the UNC could be avoided.

David Thompson, leader of Barbados' opposition Democratic Labour Party (DLP), has had to face a fair share of internal conflicts, in the wake of the January 1999 general election, though it is now apparently ridding itself of much of that kind of unnecessary political baggage in preparation for poll battles with the BLP.

The first such battle will be on September 21 for a by-election, in the parish of St. Thomas, resulting from the retirement from active politics by former Attorney General and Minister of Home Affairs, David Simmons after serving as a parliamentarian for 25 years.

Like Patterson, Arthur has signalled that he has no plans for early general election, which, in Barbados, is not scheduled before January 2003.

Whether or not Simmons plays a lead role, or any role, in ensuring the expected victory of his colleague, Senator Cynthia Forde, for the St. Thomas by-election, is really not important at this stage.

What is more relevant, as noted by some local political observers and social commentators, is that in a party well endowed with legal luminaries in the current parliament, among them a former Prime Minister (Bernard St. John) and two ex-Attorneys General and Foreign Ministers (Henry Forde and Louis Tull), the honour to succeed Simmons has fallen on the broad shoulders of the militant Mia Mottley, one of Arthur's reported 'favourites'.

Mottley, who is also the BLP's General Secretary, had to give up the portfolio of Minister of Education, Culture and Youth.

Outstanding stalwarts like Bernard St. John and Henry Forde may not be interested either in being Attorney General or Chief Justice - the latter post for which Simmons has been identified.

But there are discussions taking place on why other outstanding parliamentary colleagues, such as Louis Tull and Richard Cheltenham, are either being sidelined or simply not interested in joining the cabinet.

Perhaps when the bell is rung for a cabinet reshuffle - that is yet to come - there may be a few surprises - apart from the likely return of ex-Health Minister Elizabeth Thompson, who was suddenly axed as Health Minister two years ago last month.

From AG to CJ
The debatable issue at present, resulting from Simmon's retirement from party politics, and as raised by the DLP's leader, is whether it is at all appropriate, and conducive to confidence-building in the judiciary, for a politician of such long standing to quickly make the transition to the third highest office in the land, that of Chief Justice, without at least a hiatus.

Simmons is expected to succeed the retiring Sir Denys Williams as Chief Justice by January 2002. Williams is due to retire by the end of next month (October).

Personally, I know of no one who has questioned Simmons' competence or integrity. And, from my own perspective, I have admired his respect for freedom of the media during his years as a government minister.

However, so far as his moving, in a comparatively brief period, to the position of Chief Justice, there is no known precedent in the Caribbean Community. There are two examples in Barbados of former Attorneys General - Frederick Smith and George Moe - moving to high judicial offices, but only after a long hiatus, and not as head of the judiciary in Barbados.

Perhaps the nearest equivalent would be that of Jamaica's former Attorney General, Carl Rattray, as President of that country's Court of Appeal.

In Guyana, by contrast, there was the strange, unprecedented case of a Chancellor of the Judiciary, Keith Massiah, resigning to become Attorney General under the Desmond Hoyte presidency.

It was a development that had evoked strong criticisms within the legal profession across the region, because of the precedent and implications for the head of a country's judiciary to step down to assume the political appointment of Attorney General. Massiah is currently in private practice.

In the case of Barbados, the political temperature over Simmons's rise to the position of Chief Justice is expected to sharply increase with the launch of the campaign for the September 21 by-election.