Trinidad and Tobago voted for change, not for gender

Trinidad and Tobago elected its first female prime minister on Monday. Kamla Persad-Bissessar took a multiparty coalition to victory over the People's National Movement (PNM) and its leader, Patrick Manning, who had been in power for 13 of the last 17 years.

During this campaign, Persad-Bissessar's gender was used by the opposition to appeal to deepseated but, hopefully, bygone fears. Manning repeatedly painted Persad-Bissessar as a pawn in the hands of strong and dangerous men and suggested that "the lady" was not strong enough to rule. Persad-Bissessar, by contrast, bravely appeared on her campaign platforms to the tune of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" and made many references to her roles as a mother and grandmother.

Capitalising on his strong following among citizens of African descent, Manning also sought to stir up intercommunal apprehensions by suggesting that Persad-Bissessar would seek to harm the interests of African-Trinidadians should she be elected. For a campaign that was not shy on exploiting fears, desperation even led Manning to attack Makandal Daaga, the coalition representative of NJAC (a party born out of the 1970s black power movement). It was amusing, given the nature of the many-headed opponent that Manning had to face, to watch him present so many different bogey men. At one stage, Manning reduced himself to ridiculing the fact that Daaga wears African-inspired clothing.

Race and gender baiting failed this time and an insistence on change prevailed. In what can be referred to as a landslide victory, the coalition won seats that have been traditional PNM strongholds for decades along the east-west corridor of Trinidad. The labour movement was gratified to see two trade unionists win seats in the south, and the party from Tobago won both of that island's seats.

Trinidadians and Tobagonians were tired of crime and corruption and the arrogance of someone who saw himself as a "maximum leader". They chose a female prime minister and an Indian-supported, multi-ethnic coalition of labour leaders, human rights and social activists. There was much to celebrate on the streets of the twin-island republic once the results were announced. However, while the agents of change savour this victory, they must remember that this is a coalition of untested merit and honour. The three-fifths constitutional majority that has been acquired will allow the government to pass legislation that affects rights – a powerful tool, or weapon, depending on how it is used.

Persad-Bissessar is a woman and that fact spells progress in itself in many ways, not least of which is in the way described by Charlotte Bunch, the American feminist and executive director of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership Executive. When asked whether there was a gender-specific leadership style, Bunch is quoted as saying: "Watching women access power does change things for other women. It makes girls imagine being in power more, imagine women can be powerful. How much is that transformational depends on the women in power."

So we must look at the actions of this particular woman in power and judge her on her merits. There are hopeful essentialists who believe that women are better than men at relationship building and garnering consensus out of differing opinions – skills that will be critical in Trinidad and Tobago. As Persad-Bissessar sets out with a young, five-way coalition facing a nation that is begging for security, prosperity and decency from its government, we hope that these positive presumptions prove true not because she may exhibit them, being a woman, but because those were the promises on which she secured the votes of her citizens.

Maxine Williams, lawyer with international and human rights experience.