D-Day for UNC

It had all the ingredients of a general election.

But today, members of the United National Congress (UNC) will finally go to the polls to elect a new political leader.

The highly-anticipated election, though, would be conducted amid widespread concern about the validity of the voters’ list after it was revealed weeks ago by the party’s membership committee that some 16,000 supporters who were applying to be members ahead of the poll, would not have been eligible to vote.

The last internal poll, which took place in 2005, saw then St Augustine MP Winston Dookeran assume the reins of the UNC after it was agreed that he should be the political leader while the party’s founder Basdeo Panday occupied the position as chairman.

At that time, both men had contested the positions unchallenged.

Dookeran has since broken ranks with the UNC and formed the Congress of the People (COP), while Panday returned as political leader.

Today, Panday, 76, whose symbol for the election is the praying hand, may face the biggest challenge of his life in seeking to hold on to the leadership of the party he established decades ago.

Several scandals over the years, including the Piarco Airport Development Project constructed during the UNC’s 1995 to 2001 term in office plus his court matter for failing to declare a London bank account to the Integrity Commission, have, in many instances weakened his influence among the party’s supporters.

The Silver Fox, however, still has the die-hard allegiance of many of the party’s faithful as well as his Couva North constituents, whom he has served for well over three decades.

One of the most charismatic politicians in Trinidad and Tobago’s history, Panday is being challenged by two of his current MPs in the Opposition – Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj and Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

Both have proven to be formidable opponents.

Maharaj, who, up until recently, was part of a break-away faction of the UNC called Ramjack, serves as the Tabaquite MP. He was a former Attorney General who has vowed to minimise corruption and reduce the high levels of crime perpetrating the country.

The Siparia MP, Persad-Bissessar, has also served the party with distinction and maintains the reputation as the first woman to act as prime minister.

During her campaign, in which she was forced repeatedly to defend her character against claims by Panday that she had a drinking problem, Persad-Bissessar has preached from a platform of healing and renewal.

She sees it necessary to reduce the burdens on the working and middle-classes and has vowed to eliminate the controversial property tax should she win the internal poll, and later assume the post of Prime Minister in the next general election.

The position of UNC chairman is also expected to be keenly-contested.

Incumbent chairman and St Augustine MP Vasant Bharath is being challenged by Fifa jefe and current UNC deputy leader Jack Warner in that race.

Warner, the Chaguanas West MP, had mounted an intense campaign, comprising full-page advertisements in all of the daily newspapers and numerous rallies and walkabouts throughout the country.

Panday, whose slate is contesting all 18 positions in the executive, was scheduled to have a motorcade yesterday, but changed plans.

Persad-Bissessar, though, staged one through districts in her constituency and other parts of south Trinidad.

Maharaj, whose symbol is an open book, yesterday held walkabouts along parts of central and east Trinidad.

The latest Nacta poll puts Panday as the man to beat while it claimed that Persad-Bissessar has been losing ground.

The poll said Maharaj, who had initially appeared to be the underdog, has been progressing “because of his relatively clean campaign and his reputation as a performer and crime and corruption buster.”

Some 31 venues, including schools and community centres, have been earmarked as voting centres.


"D-Day for UNC"

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