The Trinidad and Tobago Parliament early this morning passed legislation 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 cast.
But the Constitutional Amendment Bill, which was piloted by Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, failed to get the support of two senior government ministers, including Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran. One other government minister abstained during the voting.
Dookeran told legislators during the mammoth 18-hour parliamentary session that he could not sit there and “allow the next generation’s interest to be compromised by the politics of today”.
The legislation, which the government said needed just a simple majority to be passed, also allows for a mechanism to recall legislators.
As she piloted the legislation yesterday, Prime Minister Persad Bissessar told Parliament that she would lift the collective responsibility of cabinet in order to allow government legislators to vote according to their consciences.
During his contribution, Dookeran was critical of Attorney General Anand Ramlogan who over the past few days had been engaged in a public quarrel with Dr Merle Hodge, a member of the Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC), who said the run-off proposals had not been discussed during the public consultations.
“Dr Merle Hodge is indeed a respected activist; it is unfortunate that she was attacked especially by my colleague,” Dookeran said as he referred to a letter submitted by the former University of the West Indies (UWI) lecturer on the run-off provision in the bill.
“The run-off mechanism directly contradicts the principle of proportional representation which is a central recommendation of the Constitution Reform Commission,” Dookeran said, telling legislators that “over the last 12 hours or so I have been in a state of great torment”.
“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,” he said.
Dookeran said he had written a five-page document to cabinet calling for the establishment of a joint select committee and have public consultation, and that he was “disappointed” these suggestions were not accepted.
“This is not about the politics of today; this is about the politics of tomorrow and the next generation; and I cannot sit here and allow the next generation’s interest to be compromised by the politics of today.
“I set myself that course many years ago when I went in Mid Centre Mall [Central Trinidad] and called for a different kind of politics from what I inherited. That course is still in my mind and I am still motivated by it, and I know it is right for the next generation of people in this country,” Dookeran said.
Dookeran told legislators that the “process is just as important as the content and I say now that we cannot accept a mechanism that is in contradiction of a fundamental principle of the Congress of the People [COP], the second biggest partner in the four-member coalition government.
Dookeran expressed concern that the country would be buying “cat in bag” with the proposed bill.
“The prime minister had announced earlier on that other legislation will come forward on proportional representation, but 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,” Dookeran said.
“I am simply expressing the torment that went through me during tonight as I listened to the debate and I understood where I myself had laid my entire political bucket down. How could I now kick that bucket down?” he remarked.
“I have an obligation to myself and to my own conscience to support the aspirations of the 140,000 people who voted for the Congress of the People (COP) 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,” Dookeran, the founding member of the COP party, said.
“Because I have to listen to my inner voice, I have to indicate to this honourable House that I really will be unable to support this bill in its present formation. I therefore have no choice but to vote against it at this point in time,” he said.
But Minister of Legal Affairs Prakash Ramadhar, who also chaired the Constitutional Reform Commission, was the only COP legislator to support the bill. The other minister Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, who is also the party’s chairman voted no, while another senior minister Dr Rodger Samuels abstained.
The COP had on Sunday urged a delay on the final vote and as he made his contribution.
Ramadhar said: “I do not know if the history of Trinidad and Tobago would reflect a prime minister taking a bold step. It is bold, it is audacious and it is to be welcomed, to free her members of cabinet to exercise a conscience vote in the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago. Ramadhar insisted that third parties would not be destroyed under the new legislation.
“Everybody speaks of the death of third parties. This is an enlightenment of democracy; this is putting flesh on all that we speak about, about participatory governance; but they demonise it. You know why? What we have seen from the other side is that they want to return to what we call gatekeeping politics where the fear factor is a split vote,” said Ramadhar.
But Chaguanas West legislator Austin”Jack” Warner disagreed saying: “This is a blatant attack on third parties – a recipe for chaos.”
Warner said it was also important for the courts “to interpret the legislation, unless it is a deliberate ploy to the government to buy time”.
The bill will now go to the Senate for debate.