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PEOPLE & THINGS: Hooray for Kamla

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE & THINGS: Hooray for Kamla

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Those among us who monitor the political scene in Trinidad and Tobago would agree that of late, the People Partnership (PP) coalition appears to have had little to celebrate.  
Ironically, this state of affairs was related less to the uninspiring performance of the People’s National Movement (PNM) and was more about the unforced errors of the coalition and its component parts (COP and UNC).
It appeared as though, after making history as the first woman to have become the country’s Prime Minister, Kamla Persad Bissessar was set to return to the opposition benches, with Trinidad and Tobago reverting to the virtual one-party state it has always been with the People National Movement (PNM) as the only viable government.
Persad Bissessar, quite frankly, needed a miracle and while her recent governance reform plans might yet be insufficient to turn her water into wine of a Languedoc variety, she might yet avoid serving the vinegar her tenure was fast becoming.
Reference is made here to a set of constitutional and electoral reform proposals which are firmly rooted in the desire to enhance the governance of Trinidad and Tobago. Constitutional reform is not new in the Caribbean, but is often more about the political directorate’s convenience and less about what is needed in a maturing democracy.
Summarily, Persad Bissessar has introduced proposals that if passed would:
• Impose term limits for the office of Prime Minister.
• Force a run-off election in instances where a Member of Parliament (MP) is elected with less than 50 per cent support in their constituency.
• Introduce fixed terms for Parliament.
• Introduce the right to recall MPs.
While all of these aspects represent fundamental reforms, only the latter two require a special majority. Persad Bissessar has indicated her support for the ordinary legislation that will enable the first two changes, while initiating the process that will lead to the adoption for the others if her parliamentary colleagues agree.
This initiative is nothing short of a political game changer for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that academics, commentators and ordinary folk have been calling for these types of initiatives for some time now. Such change speaks directly to concerns that many of us have regarding the immense power of the Prime Minister in our systems.
Moreover, in places like Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, there is an acute awareness of the need for facilities to recall MPs before their term has ended for one reason or another. It is ironic that the initiative was placed on the agenda in the same week that former Prime Minister Owen Arthur “crossed the floor”. A facility like this in Barbados would effectively force a person like Arthur, who was elected with more than two-thirds BLP support, to consider leaving that party for fear that this same majority might recall him.
Trinbagonian and persons across the Caribbean are calling daily for more democracy and in most instances constitutional reform has dodged these fundamental issues.  Reforms in Guyana have been the most radical but have effectively created a more powerful President.
In Trinidad and Tobago previously, Eric Williams’ constitutional change created a republic which apparently makes Trinbagonians feel more “independent” and while those changes have indelibly etched William’s legacy into the country’s history, those have done little to assure the voter of more democracy.
There has been similar tinkering across the region where there is no referendum requirement and where there is such a requirement there has either been no fundamental change (Jamaica) or proposals which have failed because the referendum has failed.
A review of these initiatives quickly reveals a motivation that is visibly absent from Persad Bissessar’s proposals.
Previously, leaders pursued initiatives which helped them to function better in office or created for them a legacy; instead, these proposals effectively deepen democracy and will weaken the sitting Prime Minister by removing her power to dissolve Parliament “at will” and deter her from seeking to become Prime Minister as many times as Williams.
Certainly there is little self-interest in her proposal to force a “run-off” since she represents a larger party which could be harmed by a split-vote situation. However, that reality is suitably cloaked in the fact that an unpopular representative is in many ways an affront to democracy.
It is entirely possible that Persad Bissessar assumes that Trinbagonians will detect her selflessness in these proposals and become more convinced that she is genuinely interested in their development and re-elect her notwithstanding her obvious flaws. It is equally possible that they will not, but, in any instance, the fact that she has brought these proposals means that her legacy will now be more about her efforts to enhance democracy and less about the fact that her first term was coloured by several scandals.
Another political benefit of all this is that it puts her opponent on the “back-foot” as he now has to either support these initiatives or risk being seen as an obstacle to democracy. Unlike the rest of us, Trinidad and Tobago is not experiencing a recession so it has the luxury to consider issues of political development and Persad Bissessar’s initiative will most certainly be a watershed in that development and might yet breathe new life and hope into the UNC’s fortunes.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).