Political analysts outline Ancil Dennis’ tough task ahead in Tobago

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Former chief secretary Ancil Dennis talks to Newsday during an interview at Waves restaurant, Black Rock in January. – David Reid

Ancil Dennis is set to create history yet again.

At 26, he fought and won the Buccoo/Mt Pleasant seat in the 2013 Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election, becoming the youngest representative in the chamber.

Seven years later, on May 6, 2020, Dennis, 33, was elected THA Chief Secretary, replacing Kelvin Charles, who resigned after losing the PNM Tobago Council leadership to Tracy Davidson-Celestine.

Today, the Buccoo native, 35, will become the Tobago Council’s youngest political leader, to date, in the party’s internal executive election after being the only person to file nomination papers for the post on Nomination Day, March 28.

The PNM Tobago Council was established in 1998.

In a Newsday interview in January, Dennis said he is ready to play a major role in the rebuilding of the party after its devastating 14-1 loss to the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) on December 6, 2020, during THA elections last December.

Dennis declined to be interviewed ahead of today’s election, saying he will reveal his plans for rebuilding the party afterwards.

He is expected to vote at the Canaan Multi-purpose Facility at 3 pm on Sunday.

But political observers believe Dennis has a monumental task in rebuilding the PNM, which had controlled the THA for 21 unbroken years.

Political commentator Ralph Maraj said while the PNM has always been a “viable proposition in Tobago, it was almost wiped out in the last THA election.

“Notwithstanding the party-in-power patronage, electioneering through heavy spending and a high-powered and well-financed campaign headed by a Tobago-born prime minister, the PNM was almost sent into oblivion in Tobago,” he told Sunday Newsday.

Describing the party as “rooted and resourceful,” Maraj said the PNM will continue as a political force in Tobago. But he believes Dennis has a formidable task ahead of him.

“His is a wrecked ship. he must think carefully about how he tries to get it sailing again.”

The former government minister said Dennis has a strong opponent in Chief Secretary Farley Augustine, whom he believes, has emerged as a “careful, articulate and persuasive politician.”

Maraj added, “He (Augustine) has sent the message that he will be caring, accessible, profound and dignified, all of which we sorely need in the politics of the country as a whole.”

Saying Dennis must project strong character to rouse the attention of Tobagonians, Maraj said Dennis must focus on policy about reviving the island’s struggling economy and devising strategies to reduce the over-reliance on the THA as its major employer. Almost 60 per cent of Tobago’s estimated 60,000 residents are employed with the THA.

“Is it sustainable for the THA to be the major employer to the detriment of the agricultural and the small and medium enterprise sector?”

He added Dennis must also determine the kind of tourism he wants for Tobago as well as the benefits to be derived from energy resources within its waters.

“Dennis must grow gravitas and he must also face the possibility the PNM could be on the decline in Trinidad as challengers emerge. With his party devastated in the last THA election, he faces a big task.”

Political scientist Dr Indira Rampersad also believes Dennis will have an uphill battle on his hands in revitalising the PNM’s Tobago arm after its heavy defeat in the THA election.

“It will be very difficult. He is going to have quite a challenge in terms of leadership in the PNM,” she said.

Rampersad, a political science lecturer at UWI, St Augustine, said Dennis has several factors operating against him, one of which is the continuing challenge posed by the PDP.

The party, led by Watson Duke, recently went national. Its Trinidad headquarters is located in Barataria.

“I think the PNM has recognised that the increasing strength of the PDP could redound to its own detriment not just in Tobago but also in Trinidad.”

In this file photo, then Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis gets briefed on computerised operating system by Buccoo Reef fast ferry by second officer Rajiv Jaggessar in June, 2021. – THA

She feels the PNM is also being viewed in an unfavourable light in several quarters, largely because of its handling of the social issues arising out of the covid19 pandemic over the past two years, rising unemployment, the Paria diving tragedy, among other issues.

“So, I think the unpopularity is not going to benefit Mr Dennis well nor the PNM in general. And that includes its performance in Trinidad. The PNM is somewhere mid-point from the 2020 election and this is a time when parties and governments tend to be at their lowest ebb.”

Rampersad added, “So, while we monitor that internal election in Tobago, we also want to monitor the internal elections nationwide and the local government election as they can impact the general elections.”

In this regard, she said, the two Tobago seats must be carefully monitored.

The next general election is constitutionally due in 2025.

Rampersad also wondered how the PNM’s membership and rank and file were responding to the prime minister’s decision to lead the party into the next general election, “especially at this age.”

Dr Rowley turns 73 on October 24.

“So, there is the age factor, the return of Dr Rowley factor, a PDP factor which one cannot write off in Tobago and in Trinidad, which is an unusual phenomenon because previously Trinidad has gone to Tobago and now, with the PDP, Tobago has come to Trinidad.”

Rampersad said it is obvious the PDP is “gathering steam” ahead of the next general election.

“In the next election in Tobago, we may even see the PDP picking up all of the seats if the PNM’s unpopularity continues. So, Mr Dennis is going to have a tremendous challenge ahead of him because he is dealing with a possible greenwash in Tobago. And that challenge extends to Trinidad.”

Political analyst Dr Bishnu Ragoonath said Dennis’ biggest challenge is that he is not a member of the assembly and as such, does not have a political platform from which he can begin the rebuilding process.

“So, he is simply going to have to find ways and means to keep his voice heard literally. That is going to be his biggest challenge,” he said.

Saying THA Minority Leader Kelvon Morris will more than likely continue to be on the frontlines, Ragoonath said Dennis will have to develop a mechanism to get the media to come to him so that he is not alienated.

“Beyond that, however, working with the PNM in Tobago should not be a problem.”

Noting that the political leader of the Tobago Council will automatically be a PNM deputy political leader in the national party, Ragoonath suggested, “That will be another big concern as to what sort of respect he will be able to pull from within the PNM national party bearing in mind that people are going to see him as not being able to win his own seat in Tobago. That is going to be one of the challenges for him.”

“Mr Dennis does not have a voice in any political forum so that is something the PNM is going to have to fight hard to retain bearing in mind the PDP has made inroads throughout Tobago.”

All systems ready for polls

On February 10, outgoing PNM Tobago leader Davidson-Celestine said she would not seek to retain her position after the party’s defeat in the THA election.

On that occasion, Davidson-Celestine, who had unsuccessfully contested the Signal Hill/Patience Hill seat, said the election provided another “exciting time for the PNM” and wished those vying for positions all the best.

On Saturday, Davidson-Celestine said all systems are in place for today’s election.

“All personnel have been trained and it should be a relatively smooth process. I wish all those who are contesting the best and a bright future in the party,” she told Sunday Newsday via WhatsApp.

Davidson-Celestine thanked those who supported her during her two-year stint as the Tobago Council’s first female political leader. But she said her tenure was plagued with challenges.

“In retrospect, it wasn’t an easy time for a number of reasons but mainly since we were shut down as a result of the impact of covid19. We couldn’t congregate in the kinds of ways that we had grown accustomed to as a party even though we found creative ways to carry on the functions of the party. But at the end of it all, some very valuable lessons were learnt.”

She wished the incoming executive all the best in its endeavours.

“We are now challenged by new norms and as we evolve as a people and a party, new opportunities will arise to serve with creativity and innovation. We always stand ready in service to the people.”

Last month, Kelvon Morris, who won the PNM’s only seat (Darrel Spring/Whim) in the THA election, by a narrow margin, said he does not feel he is ready to lead the party.

Today’s election takes place from 8 am-6 pm

PNM members can cast their votes at the Parlatuvier Multi-purpose Centre, Roxborough Anglican Primary School, Mt Grace Community Centre, Hope Community Centre, Canaan Multi-purpose Centre and Bishop’s High School.

Majority of positions uncontested

Twenty-four people have filed nomination papers to contest some 17 positions in the election.

Apart from Dennis, those contesting positions unopposed are Kamaria London (lady vice-chairman); Keston Williams (assistant general secretary); Maxslon Roberts (treasurer); Aisha Mc Knight (research officer); Gerald Brown (education officer); Monique Perreira (social media officer); Kurt Wilson (elections officer); Pete Gray (field officer); Latoya Horsford (welfare officer); Ancil Thorne (operations officer).

Former assemblyman Shomari Hector, who did not get the nod of the PNM screening committee to contest the Bethel/New Grange seat in the THA election, is also contesting the post of PRO unopposed.

Huey Cadette, a former education secretary and Learie Paul, who unsuccessfully contested the Black Rock/Plymouth electoral district on December 6, 2021, THA election, are vying for the position of chairman.

The post of vice-chairman is being contested by Nicole Henry, Steve Waldron and Charles Adams, who lost the Goodwood/Mt St George electoral district to the Progressive Democratic Patriots’ Megan Morrison.

Ricardo Warner and Akissi London are contesting the position of general secretary.

Andre Baker, Stephon Isaac and Quincy Trim are vying for the position of youth officer while Kevern Phillips and Kenneth Thomas are contesting the position of labour relations officer.