The United National Congress (UNC) internal elections take place today after a bruising campaign where allegations of potential voting irregularities among other accusations have come from both sides.
Vasant Bharath leads the Lotus slate while the incumbent Kamla Persad-Bisessar leads the UNC Stars slate as both sides vie for leadership of the 31-year-old party founded by Basdeo Panday in 1989.
According to UNC’s chairman Peter Kanhai, 115,000 UNC members are registered to vote.
The UNC formed the Government from 1995 to 2001 and then was part of a coalition government from 2010 to 2015.
Two political scientists spoke to Guardian Media about the importance of the party’s internal elections as well as how they see the party healing after the elections.
James: Divisions will continue
Political scientist Dr Winford James believes that regardless of who wins the internal elections there will be a continuation of the divisions in the party.
“What we have witnessed over the last few days shows that there is a kind of rancour and bitterness that does not disappear because of the results. If Kamla Persad-Bissessar wins, the Vasant side will cry foul. Somehow all elections whatever part of the world trigger nastiness from below. We on the outside are watching as they manage the vile and bitterness.”
James believes that the UNC may need internal constitutional reform. On the matter of voter irregularities, he said the UNC has existing laws to deal with that, but the laws are simply being flouted.
“Very often democracy requires not only laws but they require people who can act in accordance with the spirit of the law, what is intended by the legislation. Sometimes people fall back on the letter of the law and try to escape through that route when it is clear that the route that they are following could not have been intended. However, Kamla Persad-Bisessar has the advantage as she has the grassroots with her. I don’t know that Vasant Bharath has done enough to win over sufficient grassroots people to win.”
He also commented on how the wider population is reacting to the internal elections.
He said that the UNC’s base will continue to stand regardless of who is chosen as leader, but the party also needs to win over the swing voters. James said if it comes across that there is disarray in the UNC camp then it is hardly likely that the party can win over new voters.
He added that the UNC’s internal elections are “very relevant” and everyone in the country should follow the results closely as that is the next major party who is the alternative to the ruling People’s National Movement.
“We run a two-party State. The third parties did very poorly in the last election. It is not right for one party to run the country all the time. You must have an exchange.”
Basdeo: Persad-Bissessar putting things in place for succession
Dr Maukesh Basdeo, a political scientist, meanwhile, said it was left to be seen what will happen after the results.
He believes that as Persad-Bisessar is the incumbent it would be easier for her to carry the party forward if she wins.
Commenting on Bharath’s promise to go to the court if he loses the elections, Basdeo said that Bharath may be taking a page out of the book of US President Donald Trump who is yet to concede after the November 4 presidential election.
“It is similar to what is taking place in the United States and what is taking place here. The courts will be called in to validate the results of the elections.”
He also said the UNC internal elections was “important” as it points to the future of the party.
The good thing is that the party’s internal elections are being held immediately after a general election, he said. “The next projected election would be in 2025, so with that being the case, this election held just after the general election will set things in stream.” He said it would give the party time to heal to be able to focus on the next local government elections and then the general election.
He said some may hope that the country would not witness a repeat of 2005 when the UNC had internal elections which led to the formation of the Congress of the People.
“The history of the party is there for us to look at. Then there are other issues in the last decade that we can look at. I have been looking at the comments of Kamla Persad-Bissessar and what she is doing is putting things in place for succession planning. Her election would see the putting of things in place for a transition.”
He said if the results are not accepted by all members of the party and if the court has to intervene to validate it, then the fighting will continue. However, if all sides accept the results then the healing can take place immediately.
*115,000 UNC members are registered to vote.
There are 78 polling stations where UNC members can vote.
*18 positions to be contested.