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Commentary: Musings on Trinidad and Tobago's Constitutional (Amendment) Bill 2014
Published on August 12, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Christian A. Hume

The following is my humble layman’s breakdown and analysis of the recently proposed Constitution Amendment Bill inTrinidad and Tobago. This matter is way too important to be left alone until the responses of the opposition leader and Colm Imbert. If Dr Rowley is asserting that this Bill is a tactic to shift the debate from LifeSport, then that’s no reason not to join the debate. So I’m here doing my little part, just as I was enjoying my prolonged sabbatical from political commentary.

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Christian Hume has a degree in electrical engineering and is a freelance photographer. He taught mathematics and statistics at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, for five years part time.
First of all, the government has been extremely careful to avoid tampering with the sections of the constitution that explicitly require a special majority of voters in both Houses: this Bill seeks to amend Sections 3, 49, 67, 73, and 76, whilst inserting a new Section 49B. None of the sections being proposed to be amended are listed among those that require a special majority. So going through the explanatory notes, we find:

Term Limits for Prime Minister

(1) With respect to term limits for the office of prime minister, the Bill would, by clause 8, amend the constitution to limit service as prime minister to no more than ten years and six months, whether such service is continuous or has been interrupted. A prime minister would therefore be required to vacate his office upon attaining that length of service. No account would, however, be taken of any time spent serving as acting prime minister for the purposes of calculating length of service. Further, no one would be appointed as prime minister who has served ten years or more in that office, whether or not such service is continuous or has been interrupted.

This seems simple enough, but it creates complications if the former prime minister retains political leadership of his or her party, even as someone else assumes the constitutional role of prime minister. This could lead to a situation like the one we had in Russia where nobody can serve more than two consecutive terms as president. So what did Vladimir Putin do? He became the prime minister of Russia, allowing Dmitry Medvedev to assume the constitutional role of president while he, Vladimir, pulled the strings as prime minister, before returning for a third term as president after Medvedev’s term expired.

So unless the proposals will be amended to force the prime minister to resign as an MP and so leave the parliament altogether, we are possibly setting ourselves up for puppet prime ministers and political infighting within parties if the constitutional prime minister of the country is not the actual and moral leader of his or her political party.

Right to Recall MPs

(2) In relation to the recall of members of the House of Representatives, the Bill would, by clause 5, amend section 49(2) of the Constitution to require a member of the House of Representatives to vacate his seat where the Speaker informs the House that he has received from the chairman of the Elections and Boundaries Commission, a petition requesting that the member be recalled and that a by-election be held in the constituency that the member represents. The petition would need to be supported by at least two-thirds of all the persons who, on the date of issuance of the petition, were registered voters in that constituency.

And what exactly is the procedure by which the petition would be triggered?

(3) Two registered voters in a constituency, who also reside in the constituency, would be required to apply to the Elections and Boundaries Commission for the issuance of a petition for the recall of the member of the House of Representatives who was elected to represent that constituency and for the holding of a by-election in that constituency. An application for a recall petition would be required to be in a form which would be included in a new Fourth Schedule to the Constitution. A person would not be able to apply for a recall petition before the expiration of three years, or after the expiration of four years, from the first poll of the last general election. The Elections and Boundaries Commission would not, however, approve the application unless it is supported by at least ten percent of all the persons who are registered to vote in the constituency.

Understand what we dealing with here. In Trinidad and Tobago each constituency normally has a registered voters’ list of about 25,000 give or take some. So basically what we are saying is that after three years, two people go to the EBC, and then they canvass and get 2,500 signatures (fewer than the number on the recent online petition to have Anil Roberts removed), and bingo! – we have a petition, which must then cross 16,000 voters or so before the MP can be removed. This would involve canvassing, and some hard campaigning on the part of those who wish to remove the MP, and also on the part of the MP who must convince more than 8,000 voters to not sign the petition – time that can be better spent performing his or her duties as MP.

Section 49 of the Constitution spells out a pretty rigorous set of circumstance under which an MP can be removed – conditions that include things like prolonged absence without the Speaker’s leave, bankruptcy, ill-health, conviction in the nation’s courts, among a host of other offences. The threshold of two-thirds of registered voters for the recall petition to be upheld is pretty high; but 2,500 voters in a constituency can trigger petitions just for the sake of publicity or to make a statement, knowing full well the near impossibility of getting 16,000 signatures to remove an MP in any constituency – much like a motion of no confidence in the prime minister that the opposition is entitled to bring in Parliament – all good talking points but generally destined to go nowhere because of the government majority. What can a sitting MP do that would galvanize two-thirds of his constituents to petition for his or her recall that is not already covered under Section 49?

Run-off Ballots

(4) The Bill would amend section 73 of the Constitution by preventing a candidate in a general election from being elected as the member of the House of Representatives for a constituency, unless he obtains more than fifty percent of the votes cast in the constituency. Where none of the candidates in a constituency in a general election obtains more than fifty percent of the votes cast in the constituency, a supplementary poll between those candidates who earned the highest and second highest number of votes would be held within fifteen days of the declaration of the results of the general election and the list of electors for the purposes of the supplementary poll would be the same list which was used for the purposes of the general election

Further to this, section 67 is to be amended to provide that no session of Parliament shall commence until these run-off ballots have been completed, save and except in the case of an emergency, with section 76 being amended to prevent the president from appointing a prime minister until all run-off ballots have been completed.

What happens in the event that in a closely contested run-off, one candidate polls 49.8% of the vote, the other candidate polls 49.7%, with 0.5% spoilt ballots? Are we then going to have another run-off? To put it in figures – let’s say that a hypothetical seat has 25,000 registered voters. Let’s assume that 16,000 voters cast their ballots in a run-off. With 49.8% of the vote, the winner would poll 7,968 votes, while the loser with 49.7% would poll 7,952 – a difference of 16 votes, with 80 ballots being spoilt. In those circumstances we would normally have a hotly contested recount, after which the matter is settled. Under the proposed amendments, what would happen in such a scenario?

Let’s get philosophical now. In her preamble introducing this Bill, the prime minister stated: “Such polls, it can be noted, are widely used in countries with substantial democratic traditions including France, Switzerland, Argentina, Venezuela, The Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea.” What she conveniently forgot to mention was that these polls are used nationwide in those countries to elect the president – they are not used in every constituency, these countries having hundreds of constituencies. I am not aware of the provisions in these countries for the eventuality just described above.

Said the prime minister also: “This means that where, on a first poll at an election that is not achieved, a second poll will within 15 days be held between the top two candidates. This will place greater emphasis on the quality of the candidates selected as the question in the runoff will be ‘which of these two candidates will better serve me and my constituency?’ In such a system, the voices of the minority would be respected even as effect is given to the will of the majority and, every single vote would matter and count as the possibility of voting a second time will breathe new life and meaning into the democratic process.”

What absolute rubbish! In 2007 the average percentage polled by the third candidate in constituencies where the winner got less than 50% was 21.62%. In the 2014 St Joseph by-election Om Lalla got 13.9% behind the PNM and UNC candidates – hardly figures to sneeze at.

What better way then to ensure that “the voices of the minority would be respected”, than to simply let the results stand as counted, thus giving impetus to individuals and to third parties to rise up and influence the politics of the country even when they do not win a seat?

If people know that their vote can count in affecting the final result even if the candidate of their choice doesn’t win, that is what will “breathe new life and meaning into the democratic process”, as opposed to removing the incentive to vote for a third party by effectively nullifying the vote in the event that the third party’s performance is so strong as to pull the winner’s percentage below 50.

The 2007 general election is the best recent example of the power of a strong third voice. In that particular poll, fourteen of the 41 seats were won with totals less than 50% – with two of those being won with totals less than 40%! So let’s for argument’s sake say that we have a repeat of this in 2015, or 2020, or 2025, or whenever…..

According to these proposed amendments, we would be treated to the grand spectacle of 14 run-offs in 15 days to decide who runs the country, no doubt with the incumbent Prime Minister and Attorney General assuming a caretaker role in the interim. In 2007, nine of those fourteen seats were UNC strongholds, where Prakash Ramadhar’s COP was the spoiler – so grab your popcorn, pop your coke, sit back and witness the balls-less one get up in Parliament and support legislation designed to pour concrete over the casket of his already dead and buried party.

The results of the recently concluded St Joseph by-election reveal the insidious nature of what Kamla and the UNC are trying to do with this proposal. The PNM’s Terrence Deyalsingh won with 44.72% of the vote, UNC’s Ian Alleyne was second with 39.23%, and the ILP’s Om Lalla was third with 13.9%. So according to this proposal, instead of just having Deyalsingh as the winner by a clear 5%+, we would have a “do-over”, where the UNC would then have an opportunity to court the 13.9% of ILP voters in order to overturn the PNM’s majority, with the possibility of overturning the will of a very clear majority of voters in the first instance if enough of the voters who chose the third-place candidate can be persuaded in 15 days to vote for the second place candidate.

It is plain to see that Kamla is trying to eradicate the influence of third parties in Trinidad and Tobago and reduce the results to a two-horse race in every constituency, even in those constituencies where a third horse would have given a showing creditable enough to influence the final result, as happened in St Joseph in 2013, and has happened in those 14 seats in 2007. In effect with this amendment, the prime minister is virtually saying to aspiring third parties, “If you can’t get 50% of the vote now, don’t even bother entering the political process”; and to the people who would vote for these parties she is saying, “If your party can’t get 50% of the vote now, don’t bother voting for them. Vote for somebody else”. How splendidly democratic.

These are hardly positions that would encourage new voices on the political landscape who are willing to wait, bide their time, lose some elections, but build their support until one day they may start winning individual seats. Not every third party is going to do as Jack Warner did and win immediately outside of the two entrenched political poles in this country. Third parties like the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) and other advocates of a third force in our politics cannot and must not support this Bill as COP leader Prakash Ramadhar would no doubt do when the debate commences next week. The less said about Prakash, the better.

Conclusion

I close by cautioning the PNM and its members; some of whom have taken the position that this Bill is just a “distraction” designed to shift the national debate from LifeSport, a position enunciated by no less a person than the political leader himself. This position seems to be an attempt to swat this Bill off like a pesky mosquito, and even if this is a mere “distraction” the party needs to seriously ask itself what has it done or is doing to exercise consistent influence over the national debate – there being a limitless supply of issues on which to keep the population continuously engaged.

The party was now beginning to gather some steam when it joined hands with this very government to approve the Pensions Bill and the Securities Bill – the first awarding increased pensions to judges and parliamentarians, the second making life easier for white collar criminals who would avoid jail time with the simple payment of a fine.

The passage of those two Bills without any recourse to mass views and opinions unmasked a deep and troubling disconnect of the PNM from the masses whose blood, sweat, tears, unpaid labour and votes it would need in order to win the next general election. The party needs to fix this, else as Kamla and her band of ragged misfits continue twisting the law and the constitution to suit their own garbled objectives, there would be progressively less sympathy from the population, a situation the opposition can hardly afford.

The opposition leader and the PNM MPs and senators again find themselves on the back foot – having to scamper to assemble a cogent response to a poorly and hastily drafted government Bill. The party desperately needs the energy of the population behind it, and there is no better way to accrue this mass energy than to articulate positions in Parliament informed by the voice of the people; there must be no repeat of the fiascos of the Pensions and Securities Bills.

In this instance, the controversial nature of the Constitution Amendment Bill has aroused an immediate response from the population, who are now in a position to initiate the debate themselves in advance of the PNM’s parliamentary response; but will the party’s parliamentary caucus continue taking positions by huddling in secret in their enclaves, or will they find ways to court the views of the population on legislation coming to the house and factor these views into the caucus positions? Only time will answer these questions.

Dr Rowley needs to connect with the people in a big way. The occasional public meeting replayed on I95.5 FM to PNM diehards and poorly disseminated press conferences are not sufficient. Get the people involved financially (party and campaign finance reform) stop the uppity top-down nonsense at level of the parliamentary caucus, and utilize the plethora of modern technologies to engage voters on an individual level – and engage them consistently. The age of social media where everyone can express their opinion demands nothing less.

PNM supporters who just assume that the next general election would be easily won are making a sad and deadly mistake, notwithstanding emphatic victories in the THA and local government polls and a victory in St Joseph – aided and abetted as it was by the existence of strong and creditable third party (ILP).

A close political confidante of mine has since 2010 been describing the coming election as “the mother of all elections” – and we are seeing the signs of it turning out to be just that. The Pensions Bill, the Securities Bill, and now this Constitution Amendment Bill are the smoke, and you know that saying – “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”. Look out!
 
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Comments:

Philip Ignacio:

Very well written observation my friend you hit the nail squarely on the head, my hope is that the executive of the party takes this carefully into consideration for not only the party but for every law abiding hard working honest Trinboganion!


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