PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad – Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley and members of his new Cabinet will be sworn into office on Wednesday, more than a week after he led his ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) to victory in the general election.
Rowley, speaking at a news conference, told reporters he had received communication from President Paula Mae Weekes regarding the ceremony after the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) concluded the recount in five constituencies as had been called for by defeated candidates of the main opposition United National Congress (UNC).
The EBC has confirmed that the PNM won had 22 of the 41 seats in the Parliament, down from the 23 seats it ad enjoyed in the previous legislature. The other 19 seats have gone to the UNC, whose political leader Kamla Persad Bissessar finally conceded defeat.
“I have received communication from her Excellency the President indicating to me that she has received the requisite correspondence from the Elections and Boundaries Commission which permits now the next step in the process of the appointment of a new government in Trinidad and Tobago,” Rowley said
”I have received correspondence from the President inviting me to attend the swearing in which will take place tomorrow afternoon at 4.00 pm ((local time). I am in the process of putting together a cabinet and the rest of the government and by tomorrow afternoon it should be available to the public.”
But Rowley stopped short of indicating the size of the new cabinet even as he acknowledged “there will be some new changes in the cabinet.
“We would see some changes that would focus on some of the major initiatives that we have to do. One of the areas that you will see is the area of agriculture, you will see us trying to give agriculture a bit of a center stage because we intend to do a lot of work in agriculture and also the question od digitalisation, you will see that reflected in the government and that would have come in step with our road map arrangements that we need to bring into the government in a special way,” Rowley told reporters.
He said the country would see some of the new legislators “accepting significant responsibilities. But there will be a very strong element of continuity within the government.
“We are a little disappointed that we had not been able to hit the ground running after the elections and last week has largely been wasted in gross futility, but we will press on from tomorrow,” Rowley said, adding that he is hoping all members of the new cabinet will be sworn in on Wednesday given however the precautions to be undertaken in preventing the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Persad Bissessar in her statement, conceding defeat on Tuesday, said she is “satisfied that the people have spoken and that Dr. Rowley and his party” would form the next government.
“I congratulate them and wish them the best. I know that many of you are feeling a sense of disappointment with the election result. I, too, am disappointed with the election and I accept full responsibility for the result.”
But Rowley dismissed her concession telling reporters it represented the “last gasp of a drowning person.
He said the immediate priority of the new government would be the presentation f the 2020-21 national budget to the Parliament in September and having it approved by October. He said the fiscal package would take into account the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the country.
In her statement, Persad Bissessar said that her party remains disappointed that the last government did not do much to encourage foreign observers to monitor the poll, saying “we remain deeply concerned, especially since the release of correspondence relating to Trinidad and Tobago’s request for independent election observers raise more questions than answers”.
But Rowley dismissed her statement, reminding reporters that the Office of the Prime Minister had made available on its website all the correspondence beginning from July 9 that had been sent to the Commonwealth and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariats regarding the need to send observers for the elections.
He said he was disappointed at the “misrepresentation of the Opposition Leader, who has been deliberately trying to do the usual which is to create a story, devoid of any facts and truth, but coming from her mouth somehow should be taken seriously.
“It is being said that I as Prime Minister did not invite observers and two, I took steps to prevent the observers from coming here,” Rowley said, adding “I just want to dismiss that today and would not engage it any further for that folly that it is”.
Rowley also said that the ruling party would no longer pursue court action in relation to the nomination of the UNC’s candidate for Prince Town, Barry Paradath, whom the party had claimed had submitted wrong documents on Nomination Day.
He said that the PNM had received correspondence from an eminent Caribbean constitutional senior counsel, who had indicated that the party had a very strong case in law to challenge the nomination, but had decided against doing so because of the costs that’s likely to be involved in the matter.
Rowley recalled that following the 2015 general election, the UNC had filed challenges in several constituencies won by the PNM and had even taken the matter to the High Court where they also lost.
He said the statement of cost by the PNM had amounted to TT$23 million and that for the EBC EC$14 million.
“The final decision is to be determined by the court. These are the approximate claims for those excursions,” he said, noting that the UNC had this liability to the PNM and the state.
“”I am not prepared to expose the PNM to this situation so as to make a point. Because the point we have made is that the Member of Parliament for Princes Town…was improperly nominated as far as the PNM is concerned, we are satisfied that he was not properly nominated.
“The question is now to be determined and I will ask the Attorney General to advise the country and to question the EBC as to whether this is not a matter for determination by the court without the kind of exposure that I am steering the PNM away from.
“Because this country must want to know that the law must be settled as to whether a Member of Parliament is sitting in there while having been improperly nominated, but I am not prepared to expose the PNM to this situation where somebody could say well you know he got more votes than the PNM candidate which is not the point at all for us…”, Rowley said.
He said the EBC as an independent body is within its rights to decide whatever it would want to do when the correspondence from the PNM is brought to its attention based on the advice of the Caribbean constitutional expert.
In her statement acknowledging defeat, Persad Bissessar, the first woman to be elected as prime minister, said that she has no intention of stepping down, despite the many calls from within the party for her to do so.
“I have reflected long and hard and have come to the conclusion that in the immediate future I have a key role to play in helping our country heal and move forward, especially with a group of young new vibrant MPs entering the House of Representatives.
“The members of the UNC elected me overwhelmingly as their Leader three times in the past ten years; tens of thousands of citizens voted for the party I lead in this year’s general election. Until such a time as our party chooses otherwise, I will remain their faithful champion and servant,” she said.