First Woman Prime Minister Takes the Helm in Trinidad

When she is sworn in as prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar says she will bring the same kind of care and attention to governing Trinidad and Tobago that she has devoted to her own family.

“I will lead a government of compassion. As a mother and grandmother, I will not let you down,” she told supporters, after voters here made history by electing the twin-island state’s first woman head of government.

The general election, called by outgoing Prime Minister Patrick Manning, came more than two years ahead of the constitutional deadline.

“We believe in democracy. The people have spoken and we accept the results and I take full responsibility for it,” Manning said, adding, “I wish the first female prime minister well.”

What a year it has been so far for the 58-year-old Persad-Bissessar, an attorney who guided an amalgam of five opposition political parties and trade unions to an overwhelming victory over the incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM) – taking 29 of the 41 seats in Parliament.

In February, she became the first woman to hold the post of opposition leader, one month after she ousted the leader of the main opposition United National Congress (UNC), Basdeo Panday, in a bruising campaign in which she was portrayed as everything from a drunk to a weak leader.

Now she joins the late Dame Eugenia Charles of Dominica, Janet Jagan of Guyana and Portia Simpson Miller of Jamaica who have headed governments in their respective Caribbean countries.

“As prime minister-elect of our great republic of Trinidad and Tobago, let me say how overwhelmed I am, humbled to deliver the government of Trinidad and Tobago to you,” she said after Manning conceded defeat.

Persad-Bissessar has promised an end to the nation’s divisive ethnic politics, saying, “We will all rise. Every creed and race will find an equal space and place.”

She said that the main task of the People’s Partnership would be to stabilise the economy, rebuild society and restore trust in the government.

“My immediate goal will be to introduce greater transparency and accountability in government and to ensure that our oil and gas wealth is truly used for the development of our nation and our people,” said Persad-Bissessar.

The Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women (The Network) called her victory “well deserved” and predicted it would forever change the political landscape of the oil-rich republic.

“We are looking forward to more inclusive government, one that takes the voices and needs of the people in decision-making. The election has demonstrated that it is not just enough to tell politicians that we have elected you, go and govern,” Dr. Kris Rampersad, the international relations director of The Network, told IPS.

She said that the inclusive campaign style of Persad-Bissessar was both a victory for women and “for the entire country”.

“As we welcome our first female prime minister we believe she will bring to the office those qualities that are stereotyped as female qualities but which have been definitely lacking in our politics and governance,” Rampersad said.

In the 2007 general election, The Network said it was encouraged by the number of women who not only participated in the electoral process, but were actually elected to Parliament and also served as ministers in the Manning government.

In the last election campaign, there were more than 25 women candidates.

Persad-Bissessar has said that she will choose a “capable and competent” cabinet “without fear or favour” and is also promising to lead a “consultative government of compassion”.

Political analyst Dr. Indira Rampersad described the victory as a “tidal wave”, noting that the voters have made a strong statement.

“But she will be under intense scrutiny. The focus now will be on her and her performance,” said Rampersad.

The former deputy speaker of the Trinidad and Tobago parliament, Penelope Beckles, agreed, saying that how Persad-Bissessar administers the affairs of the new government will be most important.

Finance Minister Karen Nunez Tesheira, who was among the casualties of the May 24 general election, said Persad-Bissessar would need to implement her agenda without getting bogged down in the historical position of being the first woman prime minister.

“I think at the end of the day, it is how good you are,” said Nunez Tesheira, who herself was appointed the first female finance minister when the PNM won the 2007 general election.

Political scientist Prof. Selwyn Ryan said the People’s Partnership, the coalition which Persad-Bissessar led into the election, “best suits the political and economic circumstances in which we find ourselves at this juncture”.

“It is time for a change. We need to open up the political system and consider other governance options. We also need to lay to rest the ghost of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (that in 1986 inflicted the first defeat on the 54-year-old PNM, but later collapsed due to internal fighting), and the fear of coalitions which it has left us,” Ryan said.

Despite the crushing defeat, Manning – whose party went from holding 26 seats to 12 – insists that his view on coalition governments “still stands and only time will tell” whether it will collapse.

This is the second time in 15 years that Manning has gambled on a snap election and lost. In 1995, his government was removed from power, ushering in the first Indo-Trinidadian as a head of government.

He has hinted that this latest defeat could signal the end of his 40 years in public life, telling dispirited supporters on Monday night, “The best decision will be taken in the interest of PNM.”


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