September 9, 2001

Internal rift threatens Trinidad government

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (Reuters) -- The government of the resources-rich Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago seems to be teetering on the edge of
collapse as a rift among ministers shows no signs of reconciliation, analysts say.

As the 9-month-old government prepares to present its 2001-2002 budget to the country's 1.3 million people on Friday, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday has said he will call
elections if he does not get the full support of all his ministers to pass the fiscal package.

The government needs to pass the budget through parliament by September 30, as its financial year begins the next day.

Panday's United National Congress took 19 seats in a December 11 election in Trinidad and Tobago, an economic power among the small nations of the Caribbean with a
strong industrial base born of rich offshore oil and natural gas reserves.

Panday, the first prime minister of Indian extraction in a nation nearly equally divided between people of Indian and African descent, became the first prime minister in 15
years to win a consecutive second term.

But the rift in the Cabinet emerged last month following public statements by Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj, Information Technology Minister Ralph Maraj and
Agriculture Minister Trevor Sudama.

They complained about a number of issues, among them Panday's failure to name Maharaj to act as prime minister if needed, alleged corruption and the alleged control of the
government by a business clique.

Sudama, one of the UNC's founders, has accused the prime minister of dancing to the tune of the business elites.

"What I can say however is that he performs but he performs for the parasitic oligarchy because they call the shots. If they say jump, I think his question is, how high. If
they say go to Miami, he asks when," Sudama told reporters.

Political scientist Dr. Hamid Ghany said that if the government brings a budget that delivers the UNC campaign promises of the last election, there may be some pressure on
the disgruntled ministers to support the measures since they were part of that campaign.

"If the budget fails, there will be the need for the approval for contingency expenditure. It is obvious that the prime minister will advise the president to dissolve Parliament so
that general elections can be held, owing to the inability of the government to have its fiscal measures approved," Ghany said.

Apart from the internal threat posed by the renegade ministers, the Panday administration also faces another challenge in the form of election petitions filed by the opposition
party to remove two UNC members from Parliament. The challengers say the two violated election laws because they failed to disclose they held dual citizenship.

If the petitions are successful and a court awards the two seats to the People's National Movement, it would effectively put the UNC in opposition.

Last December, the UNC secured 19 out of 36 parliamentary seats to win the elections. The PNM won 16 and the minority National Alliance for Reconstruction, one seat.

With all the challenges facing the government, the Daily Express last Friday urged the government to call fresh elections and seek a new mandate from voters.

"The truth is Mr. Panday's government has become so hopelessly divided and tainted that not only does it not have the moral authority to govern, but it has also lost the
essential organizational coherence without which the running of anything, far more a country as complex and restless as Trinidad and Tobago, is definitely not on," the paper
said in an editorial.

"It is still Mr. Panday's prerogative to clear the slate and begin anew. He must move to do so sooner rather than later."

A survey published last week said that if the UNC goes into a snap election as a fractured group, it will lose out to the opposition party.

The survey, conducted by the North American Caribbean Teachers Association concluded: "If the dissidents are not renominated as UNC candidates in a snap elections, the
UNC is going down to defeat by the PNM."

Central Bank Governor Winston Dookeran sounded a warning that continued turbulence in the politics could affect the buoyant energy-driven economy.

"The general picture in Trinidad and Tobago continues to be a positive one as far as the international commentators are concerned based on the performance of the economy.

But, he added: "The major task facing us therefore is to take the appropriate measures to remove all forms of uncertainty in order to establish the safe environment for market
discipline to perform for the benefit of Trinidad and Tobago."

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