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Category: Trinidad Politics 07 Sep 14


In a tiny democracy such as this, where the norm is that people don’t keep their word (from the electrician who casually fails to show up, to the politicians from whom we still await the bottle bill so we can finally start recycling), the efficacy with which the Constitution (Amendment) Bill was passed has raised red flags.

Anthony Vieira declared it “the most controversial piece of legislation” to come to the Parliament. Fyard Hosein wrote: “At its core, the principle is if you cannot get what you wish, then you are to choose what other people wish for you.”

Late last month the Senate approved the bill by an 18-12 margin.

It includes the following: (i) a two-term limit for prime ministers; (ii) the right to recall legislators; (iii) the need for an elected candidate to obtain 50 per cent of the votes in a general election or face a runoff. The mistake politicians make repeatedly on the dopamine and serotonin chemical high induced by power is: they think the people they “rule” are credulous, stupid. They forget that no matter how uneducated, how dependent, our  people have a native intelligence. Trinbagonians “know” things in their bones. And when the people act during elections, they vote from the gut.

Still, this time, the people’s hands are tied. The victory belongs to the politicians. Why the rush to pass this hastily-crafted bill? I asked the highest-ranking legal luminary I know, who understands minutely every nuance of this bill.

This is what he said:

“The bill has caused fear and resentment. People are asking why the Government was so persistent in pushing this measure through despite significant opposition to it, despite the complaint that there has been very little public consultation.

“The amendment—the runoff provision—was not trivial. It allows the party that has run a closer third to participate in the runoff poll. This is a complete reversal of the underlining policy which is no one should be elected until they get the majority of the vote.

“The fear is this will have a chilling effect on third parties other than the two main parties of UNC and PNM, and entrench tribal voting.”

Here’s how:

“While third parties have shown themselves incapable of coming first in any constituency and have not won a seat in any election, without an accommodation with another party, the amendment will operate to wipe them off the slate altogether.

“In 2007, when the COP ran, the PNM is said to have benefited from the splitting of the vote by the COP. In 2010, the accommodation made by the UNC with the COP avoided the difficulty of the split vote, especially in marginal seats. The Partnership was formed because the UNC agreed not to run in certain seats where they supported COP, which won six seats. By avoiding splitting votes, the UNC emerged as the winner.

“With the runoff provision the bar is raised even higher, because the third party would have to pull more votes than the UNC and PNM put together, which is improbable in the extreme. If it is able to beat one and not the other, the party would qualify for the runoff election. But even if COP beat both parties without gaining an overall majority, it will still have to face the runoff against larger parties. If the chances of a small party winning based on past performance was small, under this new system it will be so remote that it will persuade them that it is not worth participating in the contest.

“Under the previous system, even if two parties were competing, they weren’t as polarised as they will be under this system, although admittedly, there isn’t much to choose regarding the ideology of the two parties.

“There are other fears: that the 15-day delay between the first and second poll will put an added burden on the Election and Boundaries Commission; that it will allow the Government access to the state treasury to influence the outcome of the election. Another pressing fear is that the 15-day gap will create a void, an interregnum of absence of effective government between the reins of incumbent and those taking over.

“The provision of the second election will reduce the impact of the third party splitting the vote and there will be no inducement to the UNC or the PNM to form a coalition with a smaller group. The idea behind the bill is that if there is a runoff, the third party, which doesn’t qualify, will be able to offer its votes to surviving parties.

“But in our context, this is unlikely to happen. I don’t think those who voted for a third or alternate party rather than the big two will vote again at all. Rather than take instruction from their leader, they will resort to tribal voting.”

At the end of this interview, my heart sank.

This amendment to the Constitution would make people’s votes count less, rather than more. It’s back to tribal voting.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur