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Another case for constitutional reform

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If, as the victorious Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago claims, God had spoken to the people of his country as to their choice in last Monday’s General Elections, then Mr. Patrick Manning needs to revisit his conclusions on the results of those elections. Mr. Manning’s People’s National Movement (PNM) gained its ninth victory at the polls in the twin-island republic, overcoming the two-pronged threat of veteran Basdeo Panday’s United National Congress Alliance (UNCA) and its offshoot, the Congress of the People (COP) led by Winston Dookerman.{{more}}

In the three-cornered race, the PNM emerged with 26 of the 41 seats at stake, the remaining 15 going to the UNCA. Confirming the strong belief that third parties are greatly disadvantaged under the Westminster system, Dookerman’s COP failed to garner a single seat. Sadly, the elections results reinforced the political divide in Trinidad and Tobago along ethnic lines with the PNM support largely based among Afro-Trinbagonians, while the UNCA relied heavily on its Indian/Hindu base. Forty-five years after independence, Trinidad and Tobago has not been able to overcome the colonial legacy of race politics.

But there was another lesson emerging from Monday’s polls. If one looks at the tally of votes, then by Mr. Manning’s own analysis of divine intervention, he should not be Prime Minister at all. The preliminary results indicate that the PNM, in so far as popular support, is concerned, a minority government. It may have won 26 of the 41 seats under the skewed voting system, but the reality is that it obtained 299,813 votes in total. By contrast the combined votes of the UNCA and COP totalled 342,466, more than 40,000 over the PNM’s total.

This brings onto focus once more the whole issue of the urgent need for us ex-colonies in the Caribbean to underpin our efforts to build a post-colonial economy by instituting constitutional reform. It is incongruous to have a party winning nearly two-thirds of seats in general election while obtaining the minority of votes. In this case 299,813 votes= 26 seats whilst 342,466 votes=15 seats. To make it more ridiculous, let us disaggregate the Opposition vote. Of the 342,466 total, Panday’s UNCA gained 194,425 or 56 per cent plus, while the COP of Winston Dookeran racked up 148,041 or just under 44 per cent. Yet Panday’s faction gained 15 seats, while Dookeran has “not a damn seat” for his 148,000 votes.

Clearly, something is drastically wrong with a system which supplies such results. It may or may not suit the British; it definitely does not deepen our democracy nor provide adequate representativity. How can the vote of 148,000 people not count for a single voice in Parliament when just over twice that number (the PNM’s total ) gives it 26 seats and a comfortable 11-seat majority in that august body?

We in St. Vincent and the Grenadines know only too well from experience the inadequacies of the system. We have suffered from the political instability resulting from such an unjust division of the spoils. We only have to look back to 1972-74, 1979-84 and the 1998-2001 periods for a reminder. There are numerous other examples in the Caribbean. In fact, Guyana was perhaps the worst case scenario leading to that country having to move to a form of proportional representation.

The Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, echoing the voice of the people, has strongly recommended a change to the existing voting system. In Trinidad and Tobago, too, there has been clamour long before Monday’s election, for serious constitutional and electoral reform. The election results can only strengthen those calls. It is more than time for the Caribbean people to devise systems to suit themselves and not to continue to be garbed in colonial paraphernalia which does not fit us.

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