R. Rose
August 19, 2014

Political storm in Trinidad and Tobago – Pt 2

The political controversy in Trinidad and Tobago over constitutional amendments approved at the last sitting of that country’s House of Representatives seems to be heading for a showdown. Opposition to the Bill passed, mostly in regard to one particular aspect providing for run-off elections, where no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote in an election, has been mounting, but Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her government are not backing down.{{more}}

The second House of Parliament, the Senate, is due to meet next Tuesday to debate and vote on the Bill, but calls for the postponement of the vote in order to allow for wider public discussion are getting louder. Among the latest calls is one from the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago, which, in a statement from its president, urged that the Senate debate be postponed and the people consulted.

The Law Association stated that the Bill has “far-reaching consequences” in that the run-off proposal seeks to “alter the manner of appointment” to the House of Representatives, and that it is “imperative that there be public consultation and participation” because, in its view, “clarity is important to engender confidence.” The organization further noted that the Constitutional Reform Commission in its report had identified other pressing areas for constitutional reform which ought to be addressed. These, said the legal body, ought to be given equal consideration and be included in any changes to the Constitution.

Daily protests and expressions of support, as well as intensive debate in the media, attest to the level of feeling on the matter. In addition, both the Opposition PNM and former UNC member Ramesh Maharaj have threatened to take the matter to the courts, Maharaj expressing confidence that the Bill would be declared unconstitutional.

Clearly, the row is, as I noted in the first part of this article, not so much about principle and content as it is about process and intention. Interestingly, while the Government is being asked to withdraw the Bill, the major arguments focus on the run-off provisions and their implications for the outcome of future elections in Trinidad and Tobago. It is the context, the apparent haste, and, as the Law Association states, the selected nature of the constitutional amendments which are at the heart of the controversy.

But there are two other amendments passed which do not appear to be drawing much comment. These are for recall of elected representatives and to limit persons from having more than two terms as prime minister, similar to the term limits for US presidents.

There have been some arguments over the recall provision, mainly on procedural grounds. There was some confusion initially about it, forcing the Government to amend the original draft to allow the Election and Boundaries Commission a three-day period after any application lodged to initiate a recall process, in order to eliminate mischief and verify signatures to any such application. A limit is also to be put to the number of recall initiatives.

But in principle, the recall provision is needed in a parliamentary system like ours where there are no obligations for elected representatives to report to their constituents or to serve their interests. This is a principle long advanced by the progressive movement in SVG for more than four decades now. Significantly, it was raised time and again, during the public discussions of our own constitutional reform process, and was even included, (as was the term limit for prime ministers), in the First Interim Report of the Constitutional Review Commission (Feb 2004), though without the support of Parliamentarians, it never made it to the referendum.

As for the term limit, this seems to be “manifesto material” for political parties, but once in office, the principle has been cast aside. Whatever Kamla Persad’s shortcomings, it is to her credit that she has actually put it before Parliament to be enacted. Further, she unselfishly included her own first term, so that if it becomes law and she is re-elected, she would only have one more term. None of her colleagues have had the courage to do that.

One may speculate on her motives, criticize the process, but she has not only talked the talk, she is walking the walk. In a Caribbean where power is “so sweet” that politicians don’t want to hear about recall, term limits and the like, Kamla put those proposals before Parliament for approval. Moreover, she had the courage to allow all on her side to vote with their consciences and not force them to toe the line. Which other PM has demonstrated such courage?

Governance is a key issue in the Caribbean today and constitutional reform is at its heart. I can only hope that the Trinidad situation rekindles our fire and re-focuses our minds on it.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social com- mentator.