Facing possibly the toughest fight of her political life, Kamla Persad-Bissessar spoke directly to her detractors within the United National Congress (UNC) during a virtual meeting on Monday night. Apart from expressing disappointment that “those who I once trusted and empowered, are now “gunning” for me,” the Opposition Leader also tried to point out the futility of such infighting when there were more important issues to be tackled.
She even channeled former US First Lady Michelle Obama in her efforts to silence the dissenting voices, declaring: “All I have to say is that when they go low, we go high!”
But there really is no denying the growing rift within the UNC or that growing chorus clamouring for her to step down as leader.
Billboards have been set up across the country and some activists have been very public in their calls for her removal, among them Devant Maharaj. Former Couva North MP Ramona Ramdial appeared on CNC3’s The Morning Brew yesterday, openly expressing her concerns about the state of the party under Mrs Persad-Bissessar.
However, such is the nature of democracy. Government “by the people and for the people” requires that all views be heard, including the harshest of criticisms.
Leadership challenges are familiar territory for the UNC, as it is for their biggest political rivals, the People’s National Movement.
In fact, UNC founder Basdeo Panday faced quite a few challenges to his leadership until he was finally defeated by Mrs Persad-Bissessar in the party’s internal elections on January 24, 2010. Her margin of victory then was 13,932 votes compared to 1,359 for Panday.
That landslide win made her the first female leader of a major political party in T&T and a month after that, on February 25, 2010, she was officially installed as Opposition Leader, a position she held only a few months before becoming T&T’s sixth Prime Minister on May 26 of that year.
There is no disputing the fact that over the years, Mrs Persad-Bissessar has blazed a trail for women in local politics as the country’s first female Prime Minister, Attorney General and Opposition Leader.
But this is now a decade and more on from those political highpoints and Mrs Persad-Bissessar is now in the crosshairs of some who were once her staunchest supporters, after leading the UNC to two successive general election defeats.
However, longevity and experience are two distinct advantages the Opposition Leader brings to the leadership struggle now developing within her party. She also has a sizeable base of political support judging from the huge margins by which she has won and retained the Siparia constituency over 25 years.
Also, while the resilience of the party is being tested- not for the first time- this latest internal fight could be a signal of the start of another phase in the country’s political evolution. Therefore, at the end of it all, whether there is continuity or a changing of the guards, the UNC will have to be ready to enter that new era.