Cancellation of Electoral Debate in Trinidad & Tobago: Symptom of Political Malaise?

In the lead-up to the country's local government elections, the Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission had planned to host a televised leader's debate tonight. Instead, because of the Prime Minister's refusal to participate, the event has been cancelled. The Debates Commission, seeing the writing on the wall, yesterday posted this statement on its Facebook page:

The Leaders’ debate is now doubtful.

The Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission (TTDC), an independent NGO, has invited the Leaders of the political parties/coalition contesting the 2013 Trinidad and Tobago Local Government Elections to participate in: ‘2013 Local Government Elections Debates’. The Leaders’ Debate is carded for live airing at 8pm on television and radio on Tuesday 15 October 2013 with the theme Local Government Reform.

With respect to recent announcements by political organisations, we advise that an alternative for any of the Leaders invited is not an option. We therefore respectfully reject any alternatives being offered. Our agreement with the Leaders of the various political organisations invited and with the public mandates that only Leaders participate at the Leaders’ Debate on Tuesday 15th October.

The statement identified which political party leaders had accepted the invitation, which had done so with conditions and which had declined:

Mr David Abdulah of the Movement for Social Justice has confirmed his attendance. Dr. Rowley of the People’s National Movement has indicated that he will participate if Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s absence is duly noted and Mr. Warner of the Independent Liberal Party is also present. Mr Warner has insisted that he will not debate without Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

The TTDC leaves open its invitation to Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar to reconsider her position and join the others on the debate night. We hope also that Mr Warner will see the importance of debating and participate with or without the leader of the People’s Partnership.

If after continued, concerted efforts to secure Leaders’ participation in the Leaders’ Debate on [Tuesday] 15th October, the TTDC will be forced to cancel the Leaders’ Debate.

The post attracted several comments. Jamilia Wallace commended the Debates Commission for its efforts to educate and inform the voter on “matters that affect us”, adding:

However, our PM keeps being a coward to speak on issues of national interest, but she can go all over the globe to speak on varying issues.

Henry Castillo, however, challenged the Debates Commission's position:

The PP is a political coalition; each party in the coalition has candidates in this election as they did in the national elections. Each party has a poltiical (sic) leader, on whose authority can the TTDC change that?

Karen Debesaran-Boodhai responded:

It is a leaders debates (sic). Not d interim or alternative leader debate. Its (sic) is high time the leader of the pp take a stand an represent her coliation (sic) party. Dont (sic) let anyone other members of the pp take the shaft for what the party is doin. she is the leader she should start acting like one. so why not answer some questions honestly right here at home.

Amidst calls to continue with the debate even in the absence of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, (who suggested that the leader of the Congress of the People, part of the current coalition government, could represent her) the commission then posted this update:

Tell us: Would you as the public accept a debate with the Deputy Leaders of the Political Parties/Coalition?

The responses came in fast and furious; Lenlise Winchester was one of many Facebook users who answered:

Not under the label ‘Leaders’ Debate'!

Councillor Daren Mc Leod offered a different perspective:

I didn't want to hear ANY of them in the first place. I wanted to hear the candidates and how they hope to serve people since local government has no place for party politics. I wanted to hear whether they understand the complexities of the system they are about to enter and if so, how they plan to lobby for the reform that is first needed before they can properly deliver… For an election involving 14 unique Corporations, 2 debates is not a serious enough approach in my humble view.

Henry Castillo agreed:

You Sir should got of the head of the class. Why must the leaders debate or for that matter those who hold the portfolios of sitting or shadow Local Government Minister. A lot of the candidates are “tabula rasa” and have to be taught about local government from scratch. So let the candidates debate and we will be able to separate the sheep from the goat and the craupaud from the tie!

Many netizens, however, felt strongly about the Prime Minister's non-participation. Alana Allan noted that:

The Prime minister bashed Mr. Manning back in 2010 and now she goes and do the same thing she bashed him for.

Christopher Lewis agreed:

No emphatically no they love power but not accountability hiding behind poor legalese to avoid the sunlight of responsibility.

Rudy Hanamji, who was a supporter of the Congress of the People, added:

I only want to hear from the leader of the Gov't. A Gov't I helped to install. Prakash Ramadhar should not push himself in fowl party or in this case accept directions from another, PM or not. SHE IS THE PM, SHE IS THE LEADER OF THE PP Coalition – let HER debate or call it off clearly stating that it is due to her non-participation. The person who thumped her chest and called Rowley a coward for not debating in 2010. NO NO NO

Danielle Francois asked:

can't you just let the COP leader debate? win win for all

Angelo Stephan Hart retorted:

Would you as a consumer accept Papa John's if you ordered Domino's?

Christopher Williams also weighed in:

we were promised a leaders debate. Is this what our leaders will do? they must face the moderator and answer questions as they promised to do. Our prime minster must present herself to account to the people.

Finally, late last night, the commission made its decision:

The Leaders’ Debate is Off #LGDebate

While people didn't seem surprised, they were quick to express their disappointment. Inga Dottin wrote:

I commend the TTDC for trying. Perhaps our Democracy isn't quite ready for this. Open, cordial discussion among persons with differing political viewpoints requires a great level of maturity. At 50 T&T is still teething!

Joel Monroe called the cancellation a “sad day for concerned citizens”, while Bassem Hanna thought it a “grave disappointment”:

It really is a blow to this positive and necessary step in our democracy. I suppose it means those who do not want to face the music, simply do not have to.

The Debates Commission's last word on the situation was this statement, posted late yesterday:

‘Hopefully in the future whenever… a leader …puts the nation’s interest ahead of his or her own, the country will finally have the benefit of a national leadership debate.’ – Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar in a May 12th 2010 letter to TTDC

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