Saturday, December 16, 2017

After the storm

There are three interesting developments from the stormy passage of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 in the House of Representatives. One is possible fallout from decisions taken by Congress of the People (COP) MPs after their party’s call for delay on the bill. Winston Dookeran and Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan voted against their Government and Rodger Samuel abstained, the three reflecting their party’s concerns, whilst Prakash Ramadhar and Lincoln Douglas supported the bill, going against the wishes of the COP. Will Messrs Ramadhar and Douglas now be called upon to resign from their party? Will Mr Dookeran and Mrs Seepersad-Bachan now be persuaded by the COP to resign from the Cabinet? If the answers to these two questions are positive, then significant political shake-up lies ahead.

Mr Dookeran could then replace Mr Ramadhar at the top of the COP and possibly revitalise this third force in our politics. What then will a re-born COP do? Realign itself again with Kamla’s UNC? Go with the PNM, which so far is not open to coalition? Or remain alone and hope for the best in a three-way contest and possible run-offs in key marginals? And if the last scenario prevails, will the major beneficiary of these developments be the People’s National Movement, which always wins in a three-way fight? This is not premature speculation because in the shortening period before the next election, events will unfold rapidly once first moves are made. But will those initial steps be taken? We wait to see. The PNM must be keeping its fingers crossed.

Another far more important development is that the legislation, though piecemeal, could lead this country to eventually grapple with fundamental issues of our politics and governance. It has put the issue of third parties in unprecedented focus, because contrary to the prevailing view which I too first shared, the run-off could give minor parties a real say, which they do not now have, in the outcome of elections in the marginal constituencies in Trinidad.

As Prakash Ramadhar reminded us, under first-past-the-post, after the votes are counted, third parties are of no consequence.

But with run-offs, third parties will be critical and can bargain creatively in terms of senatorial appointments, for example, with any of the major parties, in exchange for support. Third parties could end up with senators and Cabinet positions as a result of bargaining in critical run-offs.

And third parties will want more. This is the fundamental issue. Their ongoing demands will further the country’s political evolution. Therefore history could judge the bill as a step in the right direction away from first-past-the-post, winner-take-all, which has never been good to third parties. It killed the ONR after the elections of 1981 and would have killed the COP in 2010 had that party not become part of the Partnership. So the question we will eventually have to face is what is best for third and fourth parties which will persist and which have become very influential in elections since 1986.

Those who genuinely want political plurality in our diverse society must recognise that proportional representation is the best way to ensure the survival of third parties in our country and to strengthen the nation’s democracy. The Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 could lead us there.

The third factor that has emerged is the nerve and resilience displayed by the Prime Minister in the face of virulence and enormous opposition to the bill. The lady did not flinch. It was the second occasion in recent times when Mrs Persad-Bissessar demonstrated maturing leadership.

The first was the timing of the departure of Anil Roberts. Everybody wondered why she was not sending the errant minister home. Her Government was rocking over the LifeSport scandal, while she appeared weak and indecisive. Was she afraid of the fallout in a marginal constituency? Did he have something on her? It turned out the PM had the nerve to wait for the start of the Fifth Session of Parliament when Roberts’ departure would not cause a by-election which the Government would have lost, given the atrocities surrounding Roberts and the Government’s wider unpopularity. A by-election loss would have portended disaster approximately eight months before the general election. She did not blink then and kept her calm on Monday. In fact she had the fearlessness to allow a conscience vote. If she can hold her Government together in the aftermath of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, Kamla will be a formidable foe in 2015.