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A bifurcated executive?

By Selwyn Ryan

Trinidad's search for a new President to replace Prof Max Richards at times resembled the process used to select academy award winners. In the weeks before nomination day there were nominees galore, each one hoping to win the coveted award. Among the nominees were retired or active members of the national and regional judiciary, stockbrokers, retired or senior university academics, and ex-UN officials.

Unlike in previous cases, the process was extended and seemingly tedious. The Prime Minister however thought otherwise. She saw the process as a challenge, and actually appeared to have enjoyed playing games with the opposition who also appeared to be enjoying themselves. The PM tells us that she did not disaggregate the population demographically in making her choices. As she observed, "I don't think ethnicity is the most important factor in selecting anyone. I don't believe religious persuasion is the most important factor because we have in our society one of the most diverse, multicultural, multiethnic. There should not be one factor that should be overriding. All must be considered to come up with the best person, and I do believe that in the process we were able to select the best candidate for our nominee as President."

Happily, the choice met with wide approval.

The Prime Minister was no doubt desperately trying to secure a measure of consensus to avoid having the new President become embroiled in any controversy and bacchanal which might prove embarrassing to the Government and which might destabilise the society any more than it currently is. And in the end, consensus was achieved. The country clearly believes the end result was good for the country as a whole as well as the political parties.

Interestingly, while there was much controversy about who the President might be, there was little open discussion about what the office entails. There was a time, not long ago, when there was much debate about the desirability of moving from a ceremonial president to an executive president. The latter argument was then championed by then prime minister Manning who argued that the hybrid that we now have was dysfunctional and given to conflict between the Prime Minister and the President. It was said that we have a "two-branch executive" which was not working smoothly.

There was also the view that there was not enough responsibility to sustain a full time ceremonial president. It was said that while there were some admittedly key appointments and some high-end removals that had to be effected from time to time, there was not much that would keep a President meaningfully occupied. That view is not well informed. My judgment is that the job of the President as it stands is a "hard" one which consumes a great deal of time, social energy family stress etc.

One is almost always out making speeches and smiling whether one has the energy or the disposition. Most political systems have "decorative" as well as efficient functions and find various ways to divide the responsibilities between the two top offices in the land-Head of Government and Head of State. Some systems fuse the two offices in theory, but in practice, most do not.

In the UK, these functions are divided between the extended Royal Family and the Prime Minister and his cabinet. In the US, the roles are shared between the secretary of the state and the president and in certain contexts, between the president and the vice president. The French also have a two branch executive as do places such as Japan, the Netherlands, and Canada where one has a prime minister and a governor general.

The point being made is that many societies find it inconvenient and wasteful to have one person performing both the decorative and efficient functions. Even in the Latin world and in traditional dictatorships where fusion appears to be the case, ways are found to distinguish one role or function from the other. At times, masks are employed to establish boundaries.

From a good governance perspective, it is also inadvisable to have the President and the Prime Minister occupying the same office. Fusion makes it difficult to openly criticise the head of government without indirectly raising questions about the head of state.

My own view on the matter is that in our particular case, our hybrid system is to be preferred to the executive model that Manning was seeking to institute. I however admit that the system is evolving and that clashes between the President and the Prime Minister are becoming more frequent than was the case when the model was put in place by Eric Williams and Ellis Clarke back in 1976.

While there is much that could be said about the desirability of having someone who could act as a referee if necessary or who is entitled to "advise and warn" the political gladiators when they were "misbehaving" so to speak, past experiences have shown that having such an official has its difficulties, to put it mildly. President Ellis Clarke had his quarrels with Eric Williams and the two men had virtually stopped meeting and speaking "across the fence so to speak".

We also had open conflicts between Ellis Clarke and Arthur NR Robinson following the elections of 1986; President Noor Hassanali, and Manning often had serious differences of view over appointments and of public officials. Manning was in fact known to complain that the hybrid executive was not working and that the country had to choose between a ceremonial an executive president. Trinidad, he felt had outgrown the dual system which he deemed transitional. There were also very very serious conflicts between Basdeo Panday and Arthur NR Robinson. The two men literally could not bear to be in the same room for any length of time for the conventional Wednesday weekly meetings. At times the two men chose to write each other rather than have informal exchanges. Panday went so far as to allege that Robinson could not meet him because the meetings had become stressful and were affecting his failing health. Robinson also complained that Panday would fail to show up and that months would go by without the PM paying him a visit to fullfill the obligation of section 81 of the Constitution.

On occasion, the meetings between the two men would be angry and Robinson is alleged to have accused Panday of making remarks which were false and defamatory and which deserved an apology. Robinson felt that the constitutional arrangement could not work unless there was truth, good faith, and trust.

This author has no information about relationships between the incumbent Prime Minister and the sitting President. There have however been hints of late that all is not well, and the Prime Minister might well have been striving to find a replacement for President Richards with whom she felt she could work.

One should note that there is no constitutional requirement that the PM must meet the President on a weekly basis: it is a convention or a chore) going back to Queen Victoria which has its value, but also its burdens if there is no mutual trust between the two officials.

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