Interesting developments in the Trinidad and Tobago parliament last evening and into early this morning.
After a marathon 18 hour session, the Kamla Persad Bissessar administration succcessfully approved the Constitutional Amendment Bill, allowing for a two term limit for a prime minister and a run-off in a general election in the event that a successful candidate fails to secure 50 per cent of the votes case.
The legislation, which required just a simple majority to be passed, also allows for a mechanism to recall non performing legislators after three years, but its passage did not come without the usual share of rancour, or as the Trinis like to say, ‘pure bacchanal’.
At first glance it would appear that the legislation is nothing other than progressive on the part of a bold and forward thinking prime minister, who is willing to put aside selfish political ambitions in the interest of a more participatory democracy.
But let’s not be so fast, especially on the issue of two term limits in a country such as Trinidad where no prime minister has actually served two consecutive terms since the death of Eric Williams on March 29, 1981.
Support for the new legislation must also be balanced off against the legitimate concerns raised by Jack Warner and other legislators, who have condemned the changes as “a blatant attack on third parties”.
In a racially divided country such as Trinidad and Tobago where the ruling United National Congress/Congress of the People (UNC/COP) coalition commands the Indo-Trinidadian vote and the opposition People’s National Movement, the Afro-Trinidadian vote, such concerns cannot simply be brushed aside as nonsense.
In fact, it is easy to see why Warner for one is so uncomfortable with the proposal for run-off elections, which he describes as “a recipe for chaos”. We would wish to add, an administrative migraine, especially in the case of the marginal constituencies where there is no real history to speak of, of anyone capturing 50 per cent of the vote.
Yesterday’s debate was also very telling from the standpoint of Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Dookeran, who spoke out strongly against the amendments, which were piloted by his own leader.
Said Dookeran: “If I were to vote in support of this run-off mechanism I would be voting against the principle of proportional mechanism and that is my major concern at this point and I cannot have spent an entire life in search of a mechanism to bring about a wider participation of all the different groups in this society and adopted that we should move toward proportional representation in some form and fashion and now have to simply accept that a run-off mechanism will be a substitute and in fact it is a contradiction.”
The former COP leader also expressed strong disappointment that the Government was pressing ahead with the changes in an environment in which he felt consultation was lacking.
He also accused the Prime Minister of selling the country “a cat in a bag”, based on her earlier announcement that “other legislation will come forward on proportional representation”.
“. . . we cannot deal with one part without dealing with the other part, because then we will be buying cat in bag on this very fundamental issue for the people of this country. That is also my concern,” stated Dookeran, who said he had an obligation to himself and to his own conscience “to support the aspirations of the 140,000 people who voted for the Congress of the People in 2007.
“I also have an obligation to ensure that the young people of this country will have a political and electoral system in which they can in fact have free and independent choice in the exercise of their democratic rights,” he said
It is left to be seen what fallout, if any, there will be for the ruling administration as a result of this latest development.
And with Mrs Persad Bissessar also signalling her intention to have a fixed date for general elections, will other Caribbean leaders be bold enough to emulate her moves, or will she see be left to dance alone to her own tune?