The latest political controversy in Trinidad and Tobago surrounds the passage early on Tuesday morning of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2014, in the lower house of Parliament. It is both the content of the bill and the manner of its presentation by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her People’s Partnership (PP) Government that have caused anger and dismay in the twin-island republic.
The bill, adopted by majority vote, proposes fixed dates for local and general elections, a maximum of two terms for a prime minister, the recall of poorly performing Members of Parliament and a second ballot run-off within 15 days if a candidate does not win at least 51 per cent of the vote.
The proposals, surprisingly announced on August 4, with only one week’s notice before the debate and vote in the House of Representatives, have caused a public furore. The views of constitutional expert Prof Selwyn Ryan, writing in the Trinidad Express last Sunday, perhaps best capture the mood of most analysts.
Prof Ryan acknowledges that fixed dates, fixed terms and recall were matters arising in the consultations undertaken by the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) in 2013. He finds nothing objectionable about the proposal to fix dates but would rather allow the voters to decide on the shelf life of their prime minister, whoever he or she might be. However, he considers the recall provision “a nonsense” in that it allows recalls only in the fourth year of a term and is largely impractical. He, moreover, thinks that “the attempt to link it with the run-off idea does not seem to have been well thought out and should be scrapped or rethought.”
Indeed, it is the run-off proposal that is most contentious. Prof Ryan declares that it “is basically new to Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean political audiences. It is very controversial, and is being cynically and surreptitiously advanced under the pretext that it will make the electoral system more democratic and diverse. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is a ruse to win an election that the government fears it is likely to lose.” In his argument, Prof Ryan is happy to weigh the merits of the run-off model against first-past-the-post and proportional representation systems but he counsels that “the matter is too important and too complex to be hustled through in the secrecy of night.”
At the very least, more time for consultation on this particular proposal is necessary, especially as it did not arise in the CRC’s consultations. The unseemly haste with which the PP Government moved to Parliament for a decision, without any meaningful public discussion, has only served to lend credence to Prof Ryan’s opinion.
Even if Prof Ryan might be accused of being not entirely objective, he is not alone in the chorus of disapproval. Senior Counsel and former Independent Senator Martin Daly, for example, has also expressed concern about the run-off provision and the government’s rush to pass the legislation, giving voice to the greatest fear of many, that legal challenges to run-off polls could cause delays longer than the established 15-day period, which could hypothetically see a defeated government holding onto power until all the results are settled, whenever that might be. Additionally, the run-off period could provide “opportunities for manipulation, financial inducement and coercion” which would compromise the whole electoral process. All this could therefore “capsize continuity and a smooth, prompt transfer of power.”
Former ambassador and head of the public service, Reginald Dumas, widely considered an eminently reasonable, non-partisan commentator on public affairs, has also registered his disquiet, placing the controversy squarely in the context of the PP Government’s record of miscalculations and missteps and raising the question of “trust.” This, perhaps, is the crux of the matter.
No matter how well-meaning the PP Government’s intentions might be, it is not trusted. And in rushing through this Bill, even more public suspicion about its motives has arisen. The government has ignored calls for more time for consultation and the setting up of a Joint Select Committee. It has even disregarded the unhappiness of the junior coalition partner, the Congress of the People, with COP MPs Winston Dookeran and Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan voting against the Bill and another abstaining. It now remains to be seen how the Senate will vote on August 26.
Even with parliamentary procedures being observed, one cannot escape the feeling that the PP Government is playing fast and loose with public opinion and due process. In so doing, it is only feeding conspiracy theories, with another political analyst, Michael Harris, going so far as to call the move a “constitutional coup d’état.” With public distrust rising, it remains to be seen what the Prime Minister and her government will do to dispel this notion.