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PEOPLE & THINGS: Kamla’s gift

Peter W. Wickham

PEOPLE & THINGS: Kamla’s gift

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THE INTRODUCTION of major proposals impacting on the way in which Trinidad and Tobago will be governed in the future has reverberated acrossthe region and ignited simultaneous discussionson governance that can only be good for ourfledgling democracies.
Trinidad and Tobago is not the first Caribbean territory that has considered such changes, but the degree of alacrity with which the Prime Minister there has moved to execute these changes has generated considerable interest. Although there were four proposals discussed, this article speaks to issues surrounding the two which impact directly on the Prime Minister, while next week attention will bepaid to those which have direct electoral impact.
Several years ago the government of Guyana acted on a recommendation from their constitutional committee and instituted term limits on their executive president. As such Jagdeo has become the first president to serve his full possible term and demit office.  Little has been said about the rationale behind this change and there has been little discussion about any negative impact discovered thereafter. This is unfortunate since Guyana is an important point of reference for the discussion and is particularly helpful to the cause of those like myself who unabashedly support term limits.
Reference to the Guyana case provides evidencethat this provision is not a “wicked” and “clandestine” device to stifle democracy as some PNM legislators indicated last week. Instead it is a simple provision that ensured Jagdeo would serve two terms and focus on succession planning thereafter. Naturally the change was accompanied by facilities that providedfor the ex-president by way of compensation and privileges consistent with the American model andthis has since become an issue. Such concerns are reasonable; however, there are those (including this author) who would argue that the manner in which we treat former prime ministers in Barbados leaves much to be desired. In the final analysis, therefore, this issue is less about the quantum of money a former leader is paid and more about the principle that a person who leads a country should be accorded certain privileges.
The provision arose from a belief that in Guyana,as in virtually every other Caribbean country, the president/prime minister was/is too powerful and this could lead to abuse. The story of executive power in the Caribbean is complex but it can easily be agreed that two of the most potent powers are the power to call elections “at will” and the power to offer oneself perpetually. The former power has been used with devastating effect, while the latter is entirely boundup in the fact that most Caribbean people are partisan. Therefore an individual’s desire to see his (or her) party remain in office can translate to perpetual support for a particular individual to remain in office.
The Americans understood the Westminster system which mimicked the monarchy and have always been suspicious of facilities that had the potential to create anything that resembled a king. As such, the Americans changed their constitution in 1947 by way of the 22nd amendment to introduce term limits on the office of the president.  Regarding the election date, this is a matter over which the president has no control and this eliminates the silly games Caribbean prime ministers play with their electorate.
In both Guyana and the US, their experience has demonstrated that limitations imposed have not impacted negatively on democracy and there is little support for suggestions that this change effectively stifles democracy. Across the region leaders cannow be elected perpetually and those opposing these changes have provided little evidence that suchplaces are more democratic or better governed thanthe US or Guyana.
In the simplest of terms, our system encouragesa leader to pursue re-election which is facilitated by incumbency and his/her control of the political party.A leader is by definition interested in leadership and will naturally pursue such a post for as long as possible since there are few jobs that can match that of being prime minister. As such the deputy is seldom a logical successor, but invariably is a “safe guy” who is reliable and preserves the status quo which is the type of person least suited to lead a country.
In places where this burden is lifted by the imposition of term limits, leaders can focus on the delivery of their programme in the allotted time along with succession planning to maintain their party in office. In the case of Barbados, term limits would have relieved us of the spectacle that was the leadership battle in the DLP post-1976 and now within the BLP. Although no other country appears set to move in the direction of Trinidad and Tobago, the proposal has clearly started people thinking about governance and that is never a bad thing.
 Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant anda director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).