Thursday, January 18, 2018

Towards an accountable presidency

WITH President Anthony Carmona's term of office coming to a close, public speculation about his likely successor is picking up steam and fuelling energetic lobbying by aspirants to the office.

Largely lost in the discussion about succession is the office itself which has become an object of increasing contention over the past 20 years.

Until the appointment of Arthur NR Robinson, the Office of President largely maintained the fašade of being above party politics despite the completely partisan nature of the selection process.

Such public perception was due to the fact that under the 1976 Republican constitution, the President replaced the Governor General.

What has been largely missed is the fact that, unlike the Governor General who was appointed by the Queen, the T&T President is effectively appointed by the ruling party, based on a simple parliamentary majority for which the government, by definition, enjoys a built-in advantage.

This politically partisan nature of the appointment is the real reason why nobody is talking about a second term for President Carmona.

It is not simply that, unlike President Noor Hassanali who survived political transitions, Carmona has been a controversial and highly criticised President; it is also because he was the candidate of the United National Congress and his term comes to an end when the People's National Movement is in power. We should all hope that President Carmona's successor is of outstanding quality and impeccable character and has the professional competence and personal values to serve intelligently and honourably.

However, the fact is that it is the Government's parliamentary majority and not necessarily the quality of the nominee that determines the appointment of the President. Once sworn in, the unelected President enjoys a range of powers including accountability to almost no one and immunity from prosecution in matters related to the conduct of his duties. The President is a powerful office holder who, whether influenced by it or not, is beholden to the government of the day for his or her appointment. As the political environment becomes more acrimonious and partisan, our focus should be more on the nature of the T&T presidency than on the personalities who are appointed to it.

The pursuit of representative democracy requires that we leave behind all vestiges of the old system of unaccountable central power and get on with the job of designing a political system that holds every holder of public office to account. This is the case for urgent constitution reform.

Forty-one years after becoming a republic Trinidad and Tobago continues to hold on to the old political system in which central power is the dominant force. It is time to consummate our democracy through a political system that is transparent, representative and, above all, accountable to the people. The notion of a Governor General masquerading as a President is an obsolete colonial hangover. It is time to start talking about the needs of a modern democracy which, in the context of our republican status, would suggest an executive presidency that is elected and fully accountable to the people and which operates within a framework of institutions of equal accountability.