With the support of eight out of 15 Opposition MPs, she replaced former Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday whom she had beaten to become UNC political leader in the party’s elections of January 24.
It was the second time she became Opposition Leader, having first being chosen as Opposition Leader at Panday’s behest by eight out of 15 UNC MPs on April 27, 2006, ahead of the then sidelined UNC leader Winston Dookeran.
While in 2006, Persad-Bissessar was appointed Opposition Leader in a largely “caretaker” role during the incarceration of Panday, the Couva North MP, at Golden Grove Prison on corruption charges. Yesterday she assumed the post in her own right, having won more and more MPs until she got the requisite eighth MP — Caroni East MP Dr Tim Gopeesingh - to let her replace Panday.
She saw her instrument of appointment as taking the UNC one step closer to government, vowing to chart for citizens a way forward out of the crisis which the Patrick Manning administration has led the nation into.
“I oppose the poverty, the fear, the squandering of our nation’s resources, the ineptitude and corruption. I oppose the arrogance and self-glorification of the current leadership in the PNM,” said Persad-Bissessar.
She hit the lack of compassion and concern for the well-being of citizens, many of whom are supporters of the ruling party.
“I oppose the trampling of the rights of workers. I oppose the view that people will vote only along tribal and ethnic lines regardless of whether they are being properly represented or not.
“But my greatest opposition is to the sense that things cannot be changed. I pledge to the nation that Trinidad and Tobago will be returned to the peaceful, stable and progressive society it once was.”
Commenting on Richards’ remarks that a new Opposition Leader swears no oath further to that of an MP, she vowed to create an Opposition Leader’s oath.
Wearing a muted pink outfit that did not project power-dressing but was surprisingly low-keyed, she was a picture of reconciliation as she later spoke to reporters, even saying she hopes Panday would re-think his plan to go to the Opposition back-benches. With her fractured arm temporarily taken out of its sling for the occasion, she said she hoped that just as her arm has been healing, the party too would heal.
In this spirit she reached out to Panday and urged him to reconsider his stated plan to sit on the Opposition backbench in Parliament.
In a statement yesterday, Panday said he would now support Persad-Bissessar but not UNC chairman Jack Warner and planned to inform the Speaker that he wished to sit on the backbench.
Persad-Bissessar appealed to Panday to re-think his falling out with Warner, saying, “I would ask Mr Panday to reconsider moving to the backbench in the interests of the party.”
She was unfazed by the alleged inexperience of Warner to be Opposition Chief Whip, saying he has local and global experience of sorts.
She added, “I’ll be there to guide him. I have no doubt that he will be able to perform his functions and at those times when he may have international matters to attend to, we have several competent members.”
She had no worry about Panday loyalist St Augustine MP Vasant Bharath attending her event after failing to sign her letter to be Opposition Leader. “He would not have been here unless we welcomed him. I want to thank him as well for coming forward and offering his support. We need a united front. There will be some detractors but it is not sufficient to keep us back.”
Asked about the UNC MPs opposed to her, she said, “The nation’s ship is sinking. We need all hands on deck at this time. I welcome everyone...The criteria must really be that you must share our vision and share our mission, and we go forward.”
She downplayed friction in the Lower House on Wednesday between Couva South MP Kelvin Ramnath and Fyzabad MP Chandresh Sharma, saying it is human nature to resist change, but these issues would be ironed out in time.
“We are not in the business of running anyone out of the party. We will try our best to hold everyone together.”
A reporter asked how she differs from Panday. Saying Panday had served the nation well, she continued, “We are into a new era. New strategies and new relationships have to be forged. I do believe that the leadership at this time is best poised so to do, in this new age. We cannot keep the same strategies and philosophies...”.
She said she had campaigned for a uniting of forces who share the UNC’s vision and who are opposed to the PNM. Persad-Bissessar vowed to maintain the UNC. “I would be shirking my responsibility to all those people who elected me and gave me a mandate if I were to abandon the UNC. Whatever I am doing, the integrity of the UNC must be maintained.”
She said the UNC’s three deputy leaders and its deputy chairman make up a committee to explore unity talks. Rather than talk unity, then come together only for it to collapse shortly, she sought a sustainable framework for unity.
“ I don’t think it is enough to mouth the words and the platitudes of unity without an appropriate framework and foundation on which we can stand up,” she said.
What would she say to TT’s women on the day? “To the women of Trinidad and Tobago I would say we have come a long way but there is still much more for us to do and a further way for us to go.” Recalling the Adam and Eve story, she said the belief that God had made woman from the side of man meant they were equal. “This a further step forward in us as women in standing side by side with our menfolk. This would give the country all its human resources, not just those of men,” she said.
Women’s rights activist, Hazel Brown, who backs the progress of women in all political parties, hailed Persad-Bissessar’s appointment as “a great day”. Brown told Newsday, “You want to occupy these spaces by women and people of integrity who can make a difference.”
The Chamber of Industry and Commerce also congratulated Persad-Bissessar and the maturity of democracy in the country which allowed her to become one its national leaders.