Newsday Editorial: Sad day for our country

Newsday Newspaper Editorial

Guardian Newspaper

Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, Apr 26, 2006 – Save for the politically partisan and ignorant, it must be a sad day in any country when a former prime minister is convicted on criminal charges.

Basdeo Panday was yesterday found guilty on three charges of failing to declare assets held in a London bank account, as required by the Integrity Act. This is a sobering time for Trinidad and Tobago as a nation, as it must be an especially traumatic moment for that section of the citizenry who have placed their political hopes and aspirations on the altar of the United National Congress.

Yet the decision by Chief Magistrate Sherman Mc Nicolls would not have surprised the ordinary citizen. From the very start, Mr Panday never denied the existence of the account. His defence was that the account belonged to his wife and that he had no connection to it at all. But this unlikely story strained the bounds of credibility when it was argued that a million-dollar deposit made by business magnate Lawrence Duprey was never mentioned by Oma Panday to her husband nor by Mr Duprey to Mr Panday himself.

Only the most fanatical supporters of the UNC would believe that Mr Panday had no knowledge of such sums, despite the attempt to use ethnic tradition to argue that Hindu wives usually manage the household accounts. These persons will not, even now, be convinced of Mr Panday’s guilt, while there are staunch UNC supporters who, although accepting his guilt, would still be hoping that he will get off on a technicality when the decision is appealed.

There are, however, wider issues to be concerned about. In the short term, this decision has dealt a damaging blow to the politics of Trinidad and Tobago. While the credibility of the Opposition has been declining for some time, Mr Panday’s criminal conviction has dealt, if not a death blow, certainly a knockout punch to the UNC. And, with a Government awash in energy dollars and tending toward dictatorial rule, a comatose Opposition may well exacerbate a further social decline precisely because the ruling PNM would now feel even freer to ignore the desires and needs of various interest groups and ordinary citizens.

At the same time, there is an opportunity to be grasped out of this nettle. The UNC’s decline in political credibility was linked directly to the infighting caused by Mr Panday on the one hand, and those aligned to anointed UNC Political Leader Winston Dookeran on the other. If, therefore, Mr Dookeran can assert himself, as he has so far failed to do, as the party’s real leader, then the UNC may restore itself as a political force. This task will be made easier by the fact that those who hitched their wagon to Mr Panday’s tarnished star can now be more easily won over. At the same time, Mr Dookeran, lacking as he is in charisma, will have to present a convincing case for his “new politics” if voters are to see the UNC as a credible political alternative.

This is an absolutely crucial task if democracy is to flourish in our country, and we hope that Prime Minister Patrick Manning would not be so crass as to call an early election to take advantage of the Opposition’s disarray. This, however, is a very real risk since our politicians may not yet be mature enough as to see the injury such a tactic would inflict on the body politic.

But, if there is a silver lining to the Panday verdict, it is that politicians on every side must now realise that no one is above the law. No doubt corruption in public office will continue, but it will never again be as easy, or as easily accepted, as it has been in the past. And this represents a crucial step in the maturing of the polity of Trinidad and Tobago. It is only a pity that our wisdom has to be won under such circumstances. (Newsday)