By Capil Bissoon
One of the principal issues coming out of the discussion on the Trinidad and Tobago government’s Constitution (Amendment) Bill is fear of change and it is manifesting itself mostly in the provision for run-off elections. There is nothing anti-democratic or dictatorial about it and it certainly doesn’t benefit the politicians; the real winners in this and the two other amendments are the people who will get an opportunity to exercise their rights and the power they carry with their vote.
Capil Bissoon is a Trini-Canadian looking on at Trinidad and Tobago politics from a distance
Let’s look at them carefully. What a two-term limit for the office of the prime minister does is give the leader of a party in government an opportunity for two successive terms to govern, assuming the party wins a second term. If the party wins a third consecutive term the leader will have to give way to a successor. This ends the maximum leadership style and compels the leader of the government to perform effectively. The recall provision is closely linked to performance because it challenges every MP – including the one who becomes PM – to perform or be expelled, not by a party but by the people.
This ends the arrogance of elected representatives and ensures that MPs are accountable to the people, not to their party or the Parliament.
The third measure, which appears to be the one some people fear, is more democratic than the system we have today. According to the present rules, anyone who wins with a plurality gets into parliament. Contrary to the chatter we are hearing from some quarters, this does not bar the “small” parties or puts them at any disadvantage. Such a position is clearly meant to market misinformation.
What is a “small party”? All parties fight an election to win. If they have the right policies and candidates they will win… the argument about two “dominant” parties has no merit. Here’s why. In 1976, there were two dominant parties -- the PNM and the DLP. There were several other parties, including a new “upstart” party called the United Labour Front (ULF) that had no bona fides except that it was born from among the people and had popular people support. The ULF wiped out the DLP and became the formal opposition. In 1986, the ULF joined Tapia and the Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR) to create the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), which almost killed the PNM, leaving them with just three seats. What happened next was the influence of people power on politics.
The PNM rose from the ashes to win back government and remains a strong party. But for five years it was a “small” party. What happened to the “dominant” NAR? It went into oblivion and the original ULF became the United National Congress (UNC). The people alone determine who gets elected and who doesn’t. What the run-off vote is doing is taking it one step further in empowering the people. It says in a multi-candidate poll where no one gets the mandate of more than 50 per cent of the popular vote, the people get a second chance to choose from among the two candidates who got the highest and second highest votes.
The people would have a second opportunity to choose and if they don’t want any of the two they also have the right to refuse to vote. But in the end the majority would choose the person they consider best suited to represent them. That is what democracy is all about.
No one is silenced. All -- big, small, dominant or independent -- get to campaign equally and market themselves to the electorate and in the end each must accept the verdict of the people. No party goes into an election to run third or to lose, so anyone in an electoral race should welcome this measure rather than fear it. They would fear it if they do not have a genuine agenda to represent the people. If their agenda is to spite a candidate and split votes for the benefit of another, then there is clearly a genuine reason to reject it because this measure eliminates that type of selfish strategy.
Ramesh Maharaj did it in 2001 with his Team Unity (TU) and caused the Panday government to fall. Maharaj accomplished his devious mission by exploiting the first past the post system. The run-off vote plugs that loophole and hands the power to the people.
Anyone who argues against it is really denying the people the right to choose.