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