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TRINIDAD: History Beckons in Trinidad's Snap Election

Source: IPS
Date: April 21, 2010
Theme: Political Participation
Sub-Region: Caribbean
Kamla Persad-Bissessar may never want the year 2010 to end.

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.

"Kamla's election was significant in that she was elected in a party that is ideologically rooted in a rural Indian cultural ideology that marginalises women even though it pretends to elevate them onto a pedestal," according to blogger Corey Gilkes.

Political scientist Prof. Selwyn Ryan said her victory "dynamited the politics of the country", and that it also signalled that "Trinidad and Tobago is quite ready for a woman PM".

In her address to party loyalists, Persad-Bissessar insisted the victory "isn't about me", reminding them that one of the issues raised during the campaign was the party's inability to convince the population that it was a government-in-waiting.

Now, as the country gears for a general election that Prime Minister Patrick Manning has called more than two years before the constitutional deadline, Persad-Bissessar stands on the threshold of becoming the first woman head of government in this oil-rich twin island republic.

If she wins the general election on May 24, Persad-Bissessar will join 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.

Persad-Bissessar is asking the electorate to "take my hand and join me on this path" as she leads a coalition of five opposition parties and several trade unions into the May polls that she has termed "liberation day".

"Rarely can you point to a calendar and say 'This is when freedom comes'," said Persad-Bissessar whose campaign is benefitting from some of the U.S. election strategists who guided Barack Obama to the White House just over a year ago.

The Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women (The Network) said the candidacy of the 58-year-old attorney suggests that the local electorate is maturing into greater awareness of the value of gender-mainstreaming and the concept that all issues are women's issues.

"Mrs. Persad-Bissessar's clean, clear and focused campaign also signals the kind of 'new politics' that women can bring to the political landscape," Dr. Kris Rampersad, the international relations director of The Network, told IPS.

"We see her using what are called softer qualities and attributed as female traits to make great strides in the male-dominated political arena - to bring about unity among the opposition forces through counseling a nurturing approach to minimise tensions," she 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.

Apart from Persad-Bissessar, the number of women contesting the May poll should be in the vicinity of 20, with the ruling People's National Movement (PNM) expected to field 12 candidates, the same number as the 2007 general election.

While none of the parties have publicly named their candidates for the snap poll, Manning may use the same argument he used in 2007 regarding the number of female candidates from his party.

"We intend not just to break the glass ceiling, we are going to shatter it," he said then. "You are going to see women coming into their own by the portfolios they are asked to carry out, in a way that is unprecedented in the Caribbean. In a big and exciting way... and I suspect only few countries have done."

In the last government, six women held ministerial portfolios in the 18-member Cabinet.

The Network, which is the largest network of civil society organisations in the Caribbean, has called on all the political parties contesting the election to include a "Women's Mandate for Action" in their manifestos.

Rampersad said this includes gender policy, code of ethics for public officials, women's health and reproductive rights, disabilities/special needs, education, democracy and constitution reform, employment and the economy, media, the environment, culture and the culture of violence, and crime and the drug economy.

"What we are demanding is that these issues, perspectives and approaches be integrated into all policies and decision-making, budget design and implementation and action. Our mandate for action is not a 'sideshow'," she told IPS. "Women's issues must be centre-stage as all research is now showing if we are to make any impact on reducing poverty and achieving sustainability and other development goals."

The Women's Mandate for Action presents women as a political constituency, similar to labour, the private sector, and religious groups.

The Network said the Women's Mandate for Action has emerged from its work over the years and from commitments agreed to by successive Trinidad and Tobago governments, like the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Beijing Platform for Action, the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies.

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