I want to believe that August is Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s favorite month…or maybe every August she feels the need to shake things up.
August 2011 she gave us the failed state of Emergency.
August 2012 was the sneaking in of the proclamation of Section 34.
August 2013 was the Proportional Representation Bill.
And now August 2014, just when I think the Parliament is on vacation, and I can take a break from worrying about the health of our Constitution under this Government, Kamla hits me for six.
It is a two-fold strike. Persad-Bissessar is attempting to make good on an election promise; and at the same time ensure her political survival by enshrining in our Constitution the ingredients for a two-party state.
Trinidad already suffers from five decades of tribal voting, with the two largest ethnic groups firmly supporting either the PNM or the UNC. Swing voters and fence sitters usually eschew voting or wait for whichever newly formed third party branding itself as “one love”, “new politics”, “having integrity”, “people-centred” etc comes around. Swing voters insist that they vote issues, not race. Intriguingly enough, the current Third-Party-in-Residence, the COP, seems to have lost its voice when it comes to issues of corruption and integrity in public life as it gazes at the population smeared in Treasury gravy from eyebrow to elbow.
The key things that should be noted about the latest proposed amendments to the Constitution are as follows:
- Fixed Prime Ministerial terms in office,
- The Right to recall MPs (Section 49(2) of the Constitution),
- Supplementary Poll or Run-Off in the aftermath of a General Election (Section 67 of the Constitution).
A Fixed Prime Ministerial term is a new addition to the Constitution and so requires adding a clause to the Constitution. It is dealt with only briefly in the Explanatory Note to the suggested amendments: barely 2 short paragraphs.The suggested fixed term is 10 years, 6 months: either continuous or interrupted. If this amendment is passed, it means that no past or future Prime Minister, Persad-Bissessar included, can serve more than 10 years and 6 months in office. However, they are still free to serve as MPs for their constituencies or as Ministers etc. The limit affects only the office of the PM.
What this bill allows for is this: any PM we have, good or bad, can only serve two terms. This might help us avoid the threat of maximum leadership; but it also means that should we get an effective leader, his/her term is limited to ten years. So succession planning within political parties becomes extremely crucial now.
The longest section of this Explanatory Note deals with the Right to Recall a Member of Parliament. It goes into great detail, explaining how one can petition, the requirements, the roll of the Elections and Boundaries Commission. And after poring over the almost 2 pages given over to explaining this amendment, I call BULLSHIT…and here’s why.
1. Anyone petitioning for the right of recall of MPs has to be both a registered voter and RESIDING in the constituency. Interestingly enough, our Constitution doesn’t make residence in a constituency a prerequisite for voting. In fact, not even MPs need to reside in their constituencies. But if you are going to petition to recall your MP, you’ve got to be RESIDENT in the constituency. If passed as is, that’s loophole number 1 staring you in the face because person’s signing the petition must sign a declaration confirming residence within the constituency.
2. Constituents have exactly 1 year in which they can exercise this right to recall: between the end of the 3rd year and the start of the 4th year of the MPs term. For whatever reason, the time prior to year 3 is off limits and well, there can’t be a by-election in the final year of a representative’s term in office.
3. After 10% of constituents sign the application for recall, we then need 2/3 of the constituency to sign the petition for recall. This is an exercise in waste and frustration if only because of the tribal nature of our voting practices. Further, the third proposed amendment that I’m about to deal with, will only allow for the electorate to be deadlocked in a petition that will actively go nowhere.
Unfortunately, this amendment doesn’t allow us to fire Ministers. That power still resides with the PM. And whether you’ve noticed it or not, many of the crucially important portfolios sit in the hands of Senators, not MPs. Appointed, not elected members wielding incredible power over the Treasury and Constitution of this country.
And now we come to, what for me is the most crucial and important proposed amendment. Fixed terms don’t fret me, and the right to recall requires a far more proactive and lucid electorate to be truly useful beyond starting bacchanal in a constituency mid-term for MPs. However, the run-off to a general election, dealt with in a scant 2 paragraphs by Persad-Bissessar gives pause for concern.
The UNC-led government is proposing that once a seat is not won by at least 50% of the actual votes, then within 15 days of a general election a supplementary poll will be held, presumably so that the eventual winner will garner 50% or more of the vote. Instead of empowering the electoral process for us, this weakens it. How? By putting pressure on independent candidates and third parties. From 1962 to now, our elections, while usually dominated by 2 main parties, has allowed some room for third parties. The years 1971 (no vote campaign by DLP and ACDC) 1981 (ONR’s garnering of a significant share of votes) and 2007 (COP’s garnering of over 148,000 votes but no seat) show that third parties can significantly impact the outcome of an election, though perhaps not necessarily in their favour. On the night of electoral results in 2007, Basdeo Panday, then leader of the UNC castigated COP voters, whom he felt were responsible for the UNC’s loss to the PNM.
Third parties traditionally have the most impact in marginal seats, the majority of which are along the East-West corridor. Although, for a brief period, Jack Warner’s ILP looked like it could make inroads into the UNC support base, it now seems to have lost steam. Third parties and independent candidates also tend to offer alternatives to members of the electorate that are tired of the predatory politics currently on offer.
With this new proposed amendment:
- Tribal voting will take precedence and become even more entrenched. The ethnic composition of constituencies will take precedence. Candidates will first assess how many votes will go to the traditional parties before even making a decision to enter the fray.
- Third parties or Independent candidates have to be prepared to run a long drawn out campaign. If their funding won’t allow for it, they are unlikely to run. Cutting short the electorate’s options. This may stifle the little bit of political independence that currently exists here for third parties or independent candidates not reliant on race-based voting
- The country will essentially have to wait a further 15 days after a GE for winners to be announced, a Prime Minister to be appointed and a Cabinet to be sworn in, regardless of the fact that in essence we would have already selected a winner by casting votes.
Of course, the amendments haven’t yet been debated. And given the sneaky way in which Kamla tabled this while Parliament was essentially on vacation, I’m expecting a hectic debate. Whenever this govt fiddles with the Constitution I see the ghost of Section 34. Less than a year away from calling an election date, Kamla seems desperately trying to ensure her government is returned to office….and I’m not sure the population is keen on giving her a second term for more corruption, mismanagement of monies and box drains!
De Vice Cyah Done!