However this year, as political leader of the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ), Abdulah arguably faces the biggest struggle of his life: to convince the electorate to choose his party over the ruling People’s Partnership (PP) coalition which the MSJ was once a part of, the opposition People’s National Movement (PNM), former Cabinet minister Jack Warner’s Independent Liberal Party (ILP), and others contesting this year’s general election to be the next government of this country.
While political pundits give the MSJ little chance of winning the election or being a key player in determining who forms the next administration, Abdulah remains confident that his relatively small party could perform a feat of biblical proportions mirroring David’s slaying of the Philistine Goliath, armed with only a political slingshot and a stone of truth.
Abdulah shared his views with Sunday Newsday on the MSJ’s chances in the election and issues which he thinks the voters should be taking to the polling booth to determine whether they should re-elect the PP or elect someone else to govern the affairs of the country for the next five years.
According to Abdulah, the MSJ could very well be the elusive “third political force” which the country needs at this critical point in its history.
Abdulah as PM
What does Abdulah and the MSJ have to offer the population should they win the election? Abdulah replied candidly, “The MSJ alone offers a vision of real change. We have clearly stated that the First Republic is finished since all the institutions of State – from the Cabinet to Parliament to the Judiciary to the Integrity Commission — are not working.”
In this regard, Abdulah said his party is proposing “that we have major reforms to bring about the Second Republic, a Trinidad and Tobago where there is equity, fairness, social justice and an end to discrimination; where, as our Constitution affirms, the material resources should be used for the common good.”
“I think that I and the MSJ have the track record of walking the talk and therefore can offer Trinidad and Tobago something that is real, real hope, real change, not something that is fake – created by PR (public relations) and spin and false promises.”
The MSJ was one of five parties which formed the PP coalition to contest the May 24, 2010 general election against the then PNM administration. The other parties are the United National Congress (UNC), Congress of the People (COP), Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) and the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC).
Prime Minister and UNC political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar had advised Abdulah be appointed to the Senate on June 18, 2010. Two year’s later, the MSJ left the coalition on June 17, 2012. Abdulah resigned his post as a government senator one day later. Persad-Bissessar thanked Abdulah for his service but in a parting shot noted that the demands he had made of Government were “impossible, unreasonable and reckless.”
So having been a member of the coalition, how does he assess the performance of Persad-Bissessar and the coalition he was once a part of?
“Every government has achieved something and no doubt the UNC will boast of many achievements – box drains, road paving, some schools built etc,” Abdulah observed. However he pointed out that “what stands out is their achieving the status in the perception of most citizens as being the most corrupt government ever, and in politics perception is reality.”
“When the MSJ in March 2012 raised serious concerns about the failure of the Partnership to bring about new governance as promised in the Fyzabad Declaration and Manifesto, some of the issues that we identified were corruption, abuse of office and power, discrimination in employment in the state sector, not politicising the state and public service, nepotism – all of which were contrary to what was promised.”
“When I raised the corruption issue at a meeting of leaders in May, 2012 the Prime Minister agreed that it was an issue but said she couldn’t do anything about it. I knew then that the MSJ could no longer stay in the Partnership. We left a month after,” Abdulah said.
While the party left the coalition, its former leader Errol McLeod stayed behind.
McLeod, who is Labour Minister and Member of Parliament for Pointe-a-Pierre, has often acted as Prime Minister when Persad-Bissessar was out of the country. While McLeod has not defined his political status, the Parliament website identifies him as a UNC MP.
Partnership now UNC
Does the Partnership still exist?
“No it doesn’t,” Abdulah replied bluntly. “What was the Partnership of 2010 is really just the UNC in 2015. The MSJ left, the TOP has fractured into parts, the COP is there in name but the third force that the COP originally represented has all left,” he explained.
“ The many tens of thousands of people who placed their hope in the COP delivering ‘New Politics’ still believe in that ideal but have long since left the COP as that party has trashed their dream. The hope that the Partnership offered has long ago evaporated.”
Abdulah said the MSJ has “prepared our Draft Policy Document – 21 Visions for the 21st Century.” He said this is “the most comprehensive policy document of any political party and have held meetings with various organisations – labour, business – to discuss our proposals for the Second Republic.”
“This is our starting point because we have to move to a situation where citizens see that elections are just one part, albeit an important part, of politics,” Abdulah explained. Expanding on this point, the MSJ leader said, “We don’t start off by focusing only on elections like the other parties since they are, for the most part, electoral outfits.”
“We are building a different kind of party, one that is to bring about a ‘Revolution of the Mind’ that can educate citizens on issues and that can work and struggle with citizens in their communities to bring about change,” he declared
Starting from this point, Abdulah said it is through this work that “the election strategy will emerge.”
Stating the MSJ has not determined how many of the 41 seats it will contest as yet, Abdulah said the party is confident that “the MSJ will play a very important role in the upcoming elections and in determining the future of the country.”
MSJ fight alone?
“That issue is not on our agenda. Alliances ought not to be formed purely out of convenience but in order to bring about progressive change when one party on its own cannot achieve that,” Abdulah said.
He recalled that when the MSJ went into the Partnership in 2010, “we did so with some clear objectives.” “We had a policy agenda and we did succeed in getting a significant part of that policy agenda included in the Fyzabad Declaration and the Manifesto,” Abdulah said.
However he lamented that, “the UNC was never interested in that, nor for that matter was it interested in making the coalition work as an alliance of political parties. So the Partnership was only functional in the Cabinet where the UNC majority and the Prime Minister with the power of that office ran the show.”
Abdulah said the inherent and clear failings of the Partnership offers “important lessons for the future,” which citizens would do well to learn.
One of those lessons, Abdulah continued, is “how do parties implement mechanisms to ensure that policy debates get resolved outside of government, in forums where the parties meet as equals and resolve issues.”
Main election issues
What are the key issues in this election and how will the MSJ address them? “Firstly, leadership: who can provide visionary leadership which is committed to bring about real change; leadership which people can trust because that leadership has always been there for the people, the ordinary man and woman,” Abdulah replied.
“Clearly, there are very many issues which concern citizens: the state of the economy; governance, transparency and corruption; crime and violence; the problems of good health care and an education system that does not discriminate.”
While these and other issues weigh heavily on the minds of the citizens, Abdulah said, “Without a leadership that citizens can trust and which is visionary we cannot address the crisis of the economy or the scourge of crime or corruption or tackle the transformation of the education and health care systems so that there is equality of care and benefits for all.”
Saying the country is in a crisis, Abdulah said, “Just look where oil prices are today – and good leadership is necessary to take us out of the mess.” “I think in this election, more than most, leadership will be an issue,” he declared.
He said the facts show, “this UNC government has neither diversified nor transformed as we are coming to realise today with the collapse of energy sector prices.”
While Persad-Bissessar on January 8 boasted that the curbing of wanton expenditure is one of her administration’s greatest achievements during its five years in office, Abdulah counters, “ We cannot talk about good management with so much corruption. “
He said the population cannot escape the fact that under Persad-Bissessar’s watch there was “400 million plus in Life Sport” and “ many other damning reports by the Auditor-General, misuse of taxpayers’ dollars to advertise themselves.”
“The MSJ’s policy on the economy focuses on mobilising domestic financial resources to invest in new productive activities – in the creative arts, agriculture; creating sustainable jobs that earn decent pay; investing in infrastructure so that we have clean communities in which everyone can feel safe and enjoy living,” Abdulah advocates.
“We are for a mixed economy – where both the private and state sectors have roles that complement each other. We are for ending the old culture of dependence that has been created by a rentier economy where politicians use state resources as patronage.”
As an example, Abdulah said, “We propose transforming CEPEP from a system of contractors who are linked to the ruling party employing workers who are then exploited, to a system where there are community co-operatives so as to empower people and create a culture of entrepreneurship and self-reliance.”
Abdulah explained that the amendments made in the Senate (to the Constitution Amendment Bill 2014 which contains a provision for runoff elections “mean that a third party under very limited conditions can be on the run-off ballot, but the deck is still stacked against parties like the MSJ.”
“Acknowledging that the run-off is not yet law,” Abdulah said, “So we will have to wait and see.”
“Our policy proposal is not the run-off but for a mixed system of first past the post and proportional representation,” he added.
What would the MSJ do if it unsuccessful in the elections? To get that answer, Abdulah quoted from US civil rights activist, the late Martin Luther King Jr. “We will work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” he declared.
“That is what the MSJ is about. Justice and righteousness will not come down with one election.
Remember the crisis will not disappear after the elections since we do not expect parties other than the MSJ to bring about fundamental changes,” he said.
So in this regard, Abdulah believes that “the MSJ’s policies and principles will remain valid and legitimate regardless of how well we do in the elections.”
Reiterating that the MSJ is working towards a “Revolution of the Mind” to bring into being the Second Republic, whether it is in or out of government, Abdulah said, “That’s not simply a short term process.”