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PEOPLE & THINGS: Kamla’s Gift II

Peter W. Wickham

PEOPLE & THINGS: Kamla’s Gift II

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LAST WEEK, People and Things discussed the two key initiatives which effectively limit the powers of the Prime Minister and expressed support for the Trinbagonian Prime Minister’s wisdom and courage in attempting to do that which few of her colleagues regionally have been willing to do.

There are, however, other components of this package that require discussion and while these have been more controversial, the proposals are no less sound.  Reference is made here to what is referred to as the “run-off” election, along with the facility for recall.

It has been argued that these changes are less about the power of the prime minister and more about the “run-off” and should be dismissed on this basis.  These arguments are not without merit since the idea of introducing a “sweetener” into the mix of proposals to blunt the harshness of another measure is not uncommon. The most recent case in point would have been the reform proposals of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves which sought a republic and offered a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and the assurance that hanging could forever be retained. This initiative of course did not succeed but is useful as a point of reference to evaluate the appropriateness of a constitutional trade-off.

The St Vincent comparison demonstrates the extent to which there is little basis for the suggestion that restrictions on the power of the PM provided cover for the more insidious objectives, since the bargain for Vincentians was of little benefit and there is a clear gain in this instance for the Trinbagonian population.  In St Vincent, the offer of a ban on gay marriage and support for hanging seemed hollow since there appears not to be a significant demand for gay marriage at present (there) and as the US Supreme court has demonstrated in its treatment of the Defence of Marriage Act, such a provision would not likely endure in law for long.  Similarly, the case of hanging is peculiar since it is now legally possible to hang and this punishment, while popular, is not carried out with any frequency. One therefore doubts that a constitutional guarantee would help to make the gallows “swing” more frequently.

In the case of Trinidad and Tobago the “gift” is clearly more tangible than the republic as supporters of that initiative are yet to convince people of the tangible benefits of that system. Moreover, the suggested trade-off is valuable in and of itself as an enhancement to democracy. The “run-off” provision requires that a candidate should receive at least half of all votes cast, as distinct from a plurality which currently obtains. It is a provision which is in use in many sophisticated democracies like that of France, which is one of the oldest and is also one known to jealously guard the power of the people. The proposed requirement effectively ensures that in a situation where more than two persons contest a seat, no duly elected representative can be “unpopular” or sit with the support of less than half of those voting.

Unpopular representatives are rare in both Trinbago and Barbados; however, it can happen and where it does, the outcome cannot be said to be a reflection of the “will of the people” since a minority of those voting have ultimately decided the fate of all voters. Two of the more recent regional examples came from Barbados and Antigua in 2008 and 1999, respectively. In the former instance, MP James Paul emerged as a minority representative, while MP Gaston Browne (now Prime Minister) was elected to Parliament in 1999 as a minority representative. In neither instance could it be said that their seat decided the fate of the nation and in both instances the MPs have won successive elections implying that a “run-off” would have produced a similar outcome. At the same time, however, the principle is no less important and while one can argue that it need not be a priority, the manner in which democracy is facilitated is beyond question.

One is not oblivious to the political realities that influence the “run-off” proposal and these are manifested in both of the examples presented.  As such, former Barbados Labour Party (BLP) MP Rommel Marshall is said to have been instrumental in taking enough support away from Paul that the PEP’s 86 votes were greater than the 25-vote margin of victory there.

Paved the way

Similarly, in Antigua in 1999, disgruntled former United Progressive Party (UPP) candidate Donald Halstead captured 199 personal votes and paved the way for the Antigua Labour Party’s Browne to capture that former UPP stronghold by 139 votes.  In Trinidad and Tobago, the 2007 election provides the best recent example of the impact of a “third-force”since the Congress Of The People won no seats but could be said to have determined the outcome in several instances.

These types of scenarios form the basis of opposition to the “run-off” election since smaller and newer parties believe that their influence is thwarted by such a facility and these arguments are not without merit.  The converse question that should be posed, however, is whether it is appropriate that a third force or party that does not win should determine the outcome of a constituency contest or worse yet an entire election. The impact of the “split-vote” is well known and used by larger more established parties who have been known to “inspire” such political forces in order to maintain their dominance.

It can therefore be argued that it is a peculiarity of our imperfect plurality-based system that is often exploited by unified parties and complained about by disunited parties and their factions. Irrespective, the concept of a minority representative or a minority determining the fate for the majority is an affront to democracy which is addressed by the “run-off” which cannot therefore be said to undermine democracy.

The final major facility introduced by the Persad-Bissessar administration should not be controversial since it not only empowers people, but also gives them the power to change their collective minds. It can therefore be said to keep representatives “on their toes” and speaks to the fact that we appreciate that seismic shifts can take place in the course of a parliamentary term and this supports the logic of a facility that forces a politician to return to the electorate.  Although the recall mechanism is seen as socialist, it is widely used in liberal environments such as the state of California.

This author is partial to such facilities which clearly enhance democracy and my support for such initiatives has taken on a renewed significance in light of the current political scenario in Barbados.

As with the previous initiatives, one is cognisant of the objections and in this instance the concern is that the mechanism should not be so easily applied that it could become a nuisance to the ongoing programme of a representative. It is therefore important to note that the threshold has been set quite high (two-thirds) and this should ensure that it can only be applied in extreme and warranted circumstances, which can only enhance the democracy of Trinidad and Tobago.

 Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).