UNC, NTA leaders spar over ‘tribal politics’

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

HAPPIER TIMES: UNC leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and NTA leader Gary Griffith at a joint meeting at the SWWTU Hall on Wrightson Road, Port of Spain on July 19, 2023. The parties had announced an alliance heading into the local government election. – File photo

MONTHS after the National Transformation Alliance’s (NTA) collaboration with the United National Congress (UNC) for the local government elections, the two parties’ leaders appear to have fallen out over the role of smaller parties.

UNC leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, speaking at the UNC’s cottage meeting on Monday night, said the party welcomes entities and individuals seeking to join forces to unseat the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) government.

But she said their vision must align with the UNC’s and “bring something to the table.”

She said the party’s supporters will not be disrespected by other parties or called sheep by those wishing to piggyback on the party’s support base and resources.

Persad-Bissessar even came out in rare defence of the ruling PNM supporters, saying neither they nor opposition voters should be accused of voting along racial lines.

Persad-Bissessar directed her message to smaller and newer political parties who accuse the UNC and PNM of tribal politics.

“That is more of a talking point used by people trying to forge a political space that has never been carefully analysed,” Persad-Bissessar told supporters.

“The notion that some peddle about, that people want something other than the UNC or PNM, meaning, people want them…and then say a vote for us is a tribal vote – it is not true.”

She said there are single-issue and multi-issue voters in democracies and that “the UNC has all of these voters within us.”

Persad-Bissessar prefaced her message by welcoming individuals or groups who share the party’s vision.

The party, she said, “should embrace individuals or groups who share our vision for mainstream politics rather than just a parochial vision…our vision for development, for service to people.

“But, at the same time, we must demand discipline and equal effort from those who wish to join us.”

She said third parties are “welcome but must carry their weight.”

The opposition leader reiterated her invitation to work with smaller parties, saying, “I, again, publicly invite any smaller party, stakeholder, independent and unaligned group to speak with us, to work together to rescue our country.”

But she added that, while the party invites others to join the UNC to unseat the government, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I will not tolerate any disrespect to our hard-working rank and file supporters of the UNC.”

She said it is also important that organisations, especially political parties, have an elected leader.

“We have 300,000-plus members; do not play the fool with us. We respect our membership.”

Although she did not address any party or entity, NTA leader Gary Griffith issued a scathing response in a media release on Tuesday afternoon, saying he was “disheartened” by Persad-Bissessar’s rhetoric and insulted on behalf of smaller parties who have helped the UNC in the polls.

He said her comments disrespected those who helped the People’s Partnership (PP) take office in 2010.

“(Persad-Bissessar) appears to have forgotten the importance of inclusivity and collaboration in our political landscape,” said Griffith, who temporarily served as Minister of National Security during the People’s Partnership’s (PP) term in office.

“Her divisive remarks and dismissive attitude towards third parties are not only regressive but also reminiscent of past failures.

He said the NTA was a formidable political entity, poised to make significant strides in the upcoming general election.

“Unlike some counterparts who seem mired in internal discord and misguided strategies, the NTA remains steadfast in its commitment to unity and progress for our nation.”

Griffith said the recent attempts by some within the UNC to undermine the role of third parties “are short-sighted and counterproductive…

“I am convinced is not shared by the majority of the executive or indeed their membership, who understand that unity, not division, is the winning strategy.”

He said patterns of arrogance and exclusion were resurfacing within the UNC party.

“This is why it is important to highlight that the UNC has never achieved success in a general election under its current leadership without political partners.

“No amount of wishing, hoping and beating of chests can change this fact, which is why fair warning to those who seem intent on maintaining this path – expect the same outcomes.”

He said even if the UNC were to secure 20 seats, “it still leaves them and their huge base of supporters in the opposition for another five years.”

As it pertains to splitting votes, Griffith added, “If the NTA decides to contest marginal seats, it risks rendering both parties ineffective, ultimately benefiting the PNM with the majority of votes.

“UNC supporters must question whether their leader is willing to prioritise pride and ego over practical considerations, especially as the NTA has been and remains open to dialogue.”

He said those who may think about the NTA sitting out the elections must consider the party’s duty to its supporters.

“We recognise the significance of the diverse electorate, including those who have previously supported various third parties. Their voices matter, and we will continue to champion their causes and concerns.”

Griffith said the NTA extends “a hand of co-operation and dialogue” to all political entities, including the UNC.

“However, it is imperative that any future collaborations are based on mutual respect and a genuine commitment to the principles of democracy. Those that support the NTA demand it,” he said.

He also said it would be “necessary for the UNC leader, whomever that may be, to have the charisma, humility and ability to embrace and appreciate the third constituency (and) not have the traits of arrogance and disrespect and the intent to use those third parties to get into government then to discard them.”

Griffith said the NTA would not allow its supporters to be used as political pawns and discarded when convenient.

“Third constituency voters, be it known by different previous names – ONR to NAR to COP to NTA, are a very sensitive and important lot, and the comments by Mrs Persad-Bissessar last night, which showed blatant disrespect and disregard for the relevance of those voters, who last numbered 147,000 back in 2007, would yet again ensure that they remind her of how important that third constituency indeed is.”

Contrary to assertions of piggybacking by the Opposition Leader, Griffith said, “Not only did the NTA pull their weight (at the last Local Government Elections), we demonstrated fearlessness.”

Newsday tried to reach Griffith after NTA issued the release for further details on the falling out but there was no response to calls to his cellphone.