Leaders’ debate off
By Newsday Staff Tuesday, October 15 2013
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ILP leader Jack Warner...
THE political leaders’ debate for the October 21 Local Government Elections is off.
The announcement was made at 7.10 pm last night in a statement by the TT Debates Commission (TTDC). The TTDC described the cancellation of the debate as “a sad day for democracy in TT when the efforts to have open and independent debate among the leaders of the political parties/coalition are thwarted by the action of one group.”
The Commission also said the debate’s cancellation was not influenced by the TT Chamber of Industry and Commerce (which is its sponsor) or any members of the business community.
Reiterating the contents of a statement it issued earlier in the day, the TTDC said it was unfortunate that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar chose to delegate participation in the debate “as the Leader of the People’s Partnership (PP).”
The Commission confirmed an earlier statement from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) which said Persad-Bissessar, in an email, identified Congress of the People (COP) political leader as the PP’s representative for the debate .
The TTDC said it replied to Persad-Bissessar’s email, stating “only the leader of the PP” qualifies to debate. “No substitutes are permitted, as we have to ensure that we treat all parties equally and abide by the same rules,” the Commission said.
Noting Persad-Bissessar yesterday reconfirmed her non-participation, the TTDC expressed surprise about the “unique interpretation of the rules” of this debate. The Commission reminded Persad-Bissessar of a May 12, 2010 letter it received from her, when she was Opposition Leader. The TTDC said in that letter, Persad-Bissessar stated, “Hopefully in the future whenever… a leader …puts the nation’s interest ahead of his or her own, the country will finally have the benefit of a national leadership debate.”
In its earlier statement, the OPM said Persad-Bissessar never committed herself to participate in the debate. “On October 3rd, the Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission invited the main political parties to take part in two local election debates. There was speculation in the Trinidad Express newspaper and elsewhere, that the Prime Minister would take part in the leaders’ debate. This was incorrect. At no time did the Prime Minister give any kind of commitment to participate, as the Debates Commission are in a position to confirm,” OPM said.
The statement said Persad-Bissessar informed the TTDC’s Catherine Kumar on October 8 of the PP’s decision for UNC deputy leader Dr Suruj Rambachan to represent the coalition in last Thursday’s debate and for Ramadhar to do so in the leaders’ debate.
“The People’s Partnership decided that, as both the UNC and COP are taking part in the local elections in their own right, and as one of the UNC’s Deputy Political Leaders, Dr Surujrattan Rambachan, was to represent his party and the People’s Partnership in the first debate, it would be appropriate for Mr Prakash Ramadhar, the Leader of the Congress of the People (COP), to represent the Coalition in the second of those debates.” The statement said Persad-Bissessar regretted the TTDC’s decision not to allow Ramadhar to be the PP’s representative.
“The Debates Commission has apparently decided that it will not allow Mr Ramadhar to participate on behalf of the People’s Partnership. The Prime Minister regrets their decision, and believes it is wrong. She hopes that the Commission will continue to work to find a solution so that the second debate can go ahead. However, she has not changed her mind about participation.”
ILP leader Jack Warner, at a public meeting on Sunday, said he would not take part in a debate against Ramadhar and proposed a substitute of his own— interim deputy political leader Lyndira Oudit. This led to uncertainty that the debate would come off.
Warner yesterday said Persad-Bissessar’s absence from the debate “would be unfair to the parties whose political leaders offer themselves to be scrutinised while the leader of the Government is not subject to the same scrutiny.” Stating Ramadhar “is not the leader of the Government,” Warner said, “For any debate to be meaningful, therefore, the leader of the PP (Persad-Bissessar) must be present.”
Ramadhar yesterday questioned why Warner’s non-participation should be a reason to cancel the debate. “The participants who take part in an important forum like this shouldn’t be dictated by a handful of big business interests or the whims of Jack Warner,” he said. Ramadhar described the TTDC’s failure to recognise the reality of coalition politics as “extremely disconcerting”.
Also yesterday, PNM public relations officer Faris Al-Rawi said party leader Dr Keith Rowley would not participate if Persad-Bissessar and Warner were not taking part in the debate. “We signed on for a leaders’ debate. We are not going into any horse trading,” Al-Rawi declared.
Also yesterday, Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) political leader David Abdulah said Persad- Bissessar was “ducking and running” from the now cancelled debate.
Abdulah said the leader of an alliance or coalition had to represent the coalition parties under the Debates Commission rules, referring to the 2010 Fyzabad Declaration, signed by the parties, including the MSJ, which identified Persad-Bissessar as the leader of the Partnership.