In the process, Panday found himself sandwiched between Warner and Persad-Bissessar in the Parliament, with Warner first in the seating order on the Opposition benches followed by Panday then Persad-Bissesar. It was her first appearance in Parliament as newly elected political leader.

The move, coming in the wake of the Siparia MP’s landslide victory in the UNC internal polls last Sunday, bore the hallmarks of a leader stamping her authority on the national stage and further signaled Panday’s diminished political powers.

Panday had earlier in the week designated Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal to act as Chief Whip in the wake of Caroni Central MP Dr Hamza Rafeeq falling ill. Rafeeq had served as whip under Panday since Panday fired Tabaquite MP Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj last year.

However, Persad-Bissessar yesterday explained that according to the letter of Section 17 of the UNC constitution, it is the political leader, and not the Parliament’s Opposition Leader, who is given the responsibility to appoint the Chief Whip.

“Section 17...is crystal clear,” Persad-Bissessar told reporters during the tea-break, quoting the section which reads, “The Parliamentary Caucus shall be chaired by the Chief Whip appointed by the political leader. The appointment of Chief Whip may be revoked by the political leader in his absolute discretion.”

“So it is the function of the political leader to appoint a Chief Whip. Moreover, the Honourable Speaker of the House has confirmed that in Westminster model parliaments it is the political leader of the party who is responsible for the appointment of the Chief Whip,” she said.

She explained her decision to appoint Warner. “As you know, it is a matter of public record that Dr Rafeeq has been unwell and is unable to function fully as Chief Whip. As such, a decision had to be made to appoint someone else as Chief Whip.

“Mr Warner got the second highest number of votes (on Sunday), he is well received by the membership of the party and that is an endorsement of confidence by the membership of the UNC,” she said. “When I looked at the responsibilities of the chairman of the party, I was of the view that Mr Jack Warner...was best poised to provide the required liaison and synergy between the Parliament and the national executive.

“Given the unique circumstances in which there are only three elected MPs who sit on the national executive, it is clear the need for there to be a connection between the executive and the parliamentary functions. There has been in the past a disconnect,” she added. “I sought the counsel of UNC MPs in this decision, and there were those who did not take or return my calls, but the majority of them I asked for their suggestions as to whom they would recommend...People gave their recommendations and at the end...I made the decision as I am entitled to do as leader.”

Persad-Bissessar said she contacted Warner yesterday morning to offer him the post. Warner yesterday afternoon told reporters, “I want to thank the political leader for the confidence she has reposed in me and to say that I shall do my utmost to serve the party and the country in this office. Let me again reiterate my sincere thanks and appreciation. I promise I have no intention of letting her, the party, or the country down.”

On his first day as Chief Whip, Warner at times appeared flustered. At one point, he accidentally overturned an empty drinking glass that was on the desk before him. When he rose to perform his first task as whip, moving an extension of the speaking time for Panday’s brother Subhas, he wrongly referred to Subhas as the MP for Princes Town South (Subhas is MP for Princes Town North). However, after the tea-break, Warner appeared to recover his confidence, appearing unflustered as he contributed to debate on a bill on prison reform.

Panday, however, was critical of Persad-Bissessar’s appointment of Warner over his choice, Moonilal.

“I think he’ll be alright as soon as he learns how to move a motion to extend the time for a MP,” Panday said of Warner. “I think it seems as though he made a mess today. I usually choose the Chief Whip by consulting with the members...I don’t think that was done in this case. It was an arbitrary appointment.”

Persad-Bissessar’s victory at Sunday’s polls has resulted in a rare situation where there is an elected political leader who is not also the Opposition Leader.

Yesterday, the body language between the first three in the Opposition seating order was awkward. Panday arrived at the 1.30 pm sitting three minutes late. He took his place between Warner and Persad-Bissessar, turning his chair towards Persad-Bissessar as though offering her the seat. She declined, and Panday took his seat. “I offered her my seat since she is so anxious to occupy it,” Panday later said. Of the gesture, Persad-Bissessar said, “Mr Panday is always of good humour.”

All three went on to sit through the tabling of several papers and the debate on a prison reform bill, with Persad-Bissessar and Warner at times exchanging comments behind Panday’s back. At several points notes were exchanged between them as Panday leaned back in his chair. Persad- Bissessar appeared to make an effort to speak with Panday as the Couva North MP took notes. Warner and Panday did not speak.

Of Warner’s appointment as Chief Whip, Moonilal, who was the only member of the Panday slate to be elected as one of three UNC deputy political leaders, said he found the change unnecessary.

“I didn’t see the need to make any changes,” he said. Rafeeq, who underwent medical tests on Tuesday afternoon after falling ill in the wake of the internal elections, did not answer calls to his mobile phone.

Persad-Bissessar said the party will convene its first parliamentary caucus next week to consider further possible changes to the Parliament seating line-up. The meeting will be crucial for both the new political leader and the Chief Whip. Unlike the executive, which is dominated by candidates who supported Persad-Bissessar, the caucus contains MPs and senators, many of whom have been described as Panday loyalists.

Of possibly garnering the support of a majority of UNC MPs and becoming Opposition Leader, Persad-Bissessar said, “I have no haste or hurry. I have no great anxiety to see that post personally. There are some who are of the view that it should be done, the two positions are separate positions. As leader of the party I am now able to appoint a Chief Whip to liase. What more do you need?”

“We need to be on the ball,” she said, during the tea-break in the Parliament chamber. She then turned to Warner, who stood behind her as she spoke to reporters, and said, “no pun intended there, Jack.”



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