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Political storm in T&T over constitutional changes

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It may seem that this columnist is harping on issues pertaining to the relevance of the political and constitutional systems that we have had thrust upon us in the Caribbean, the English-speaking countries at least; but all too often, political developments in one country or another bear out the substance of my contentions. We are so caught up with the effects of our constitutional limitations that we ignore their causes until we end up in major crises.{{more}}

The latest political developments in Trinidad and Tobago demonstrate the importance and relevance of our constitutional frameworks to our social and economic progress. There, a veritable storm is howling over constitutional changes piloted through the House of Representatives by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar in a marathon session that lasted from Monday, August 11th to after 3 a.m. next day. Those amendments to the Constitution, approved by a simple majority in the House, deal with three major proposals – limiting prime ministers to a maximum of two terms in office; a provision for recalling non-performing elected parliamentarians; and, most controversial of all, a system whereby there is a run-off between the two leading candidates, if in an election, none of the candidates obtains more than 50 per cent of the votes cast.

It is this last measure that is provoking the most ire and fuelling protests. But, generally, there is concern in the society, quite merited in my opinion, over the manner in which the changes have been made. The people of the twin-island state, like their counterparts in most of CARICOM, have realised the need for a revamp of their independence constitution. A Constitution Reform Commission was established, spearheaded public consultations, and presented a report including recommendations for constitutional reform.

However, in contrast to public expectations of wider public discussion on the proposals of the Commission, the Government has chosen to put the three sets of amendments mentioned above before Parliament, rush them through in one session of Parliament, at a time when Parliament traditionally is not active (August vacation), and, according to one member of the Constitution Commission, Dr Merle Hodge, include the run-off proposal, which did not emanate from the Commission.

These are all merited concerns relating to the process and the need for participation of the people in such an exercise relating to governance and democracy. In particular, the hue and cry over the run-off provision has bearing on the outcome of general elections in that country. It is felt in many quarters that the provision, not unique by any means, since it is a principle adhered to in the conduct of elections in a number of countries worldwide, in the context of Trinidad and Tobago, with its history of racial politics, is designed to give the ruling UNC government, backed by the majority Indo-Trinis, the advantage in any elections and remove the effectiveness of a third party splitting the votes and allowing for representatives who do not, by themselves, obtain more than half of the votes.

Not all of the protest over the amendments have such merit, however. For instance, as a general principle, there can hardly be any reasonable argument over the run-off principle. The argument put forward by the UNC about “ensuring the will of the majority” seems sound in general, but there is the wider issue of whether the current first-past-the post electoral system is more appropriate than a system of proportional representation. Our own Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) had raised this issue during the 2003/9 constitutional reform process here; but, as in T&T, when ‘push came to shove’, political convenience and short-term electoral prospects triumphed over reason, principle and long-term solutions.

But, sometimes it is the approach and methods of those who propose constitutional change which leave room for those who are more concerned with partisan interests than with those of the people of the country as a whole. The haste with which the UNC government proceeded with the amendments could only create concern about how genuine it is about constitutional reform. Its selective choice of amendments to be rushed at a single sitting of Parliament, ignoring calls for broader public discussion, has helped to shift the focus from the amendments themselves to the Government’s intentions. In such circumstances, it is easy to lose sight of the real issues, as occurred here in 2009.

I will continue in Part 2 next Tuesday.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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