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Constitution Reform Proposal: A Cynical Shocker

By Selwyn Ryan

 Come tomorrow, Parliament will begin discussing a number of constitutional proposals which have been featured on the 2010 manifesto of the People’s Partnership. The proposals are seemingly widely accepted. One, the run-off election, is basically new to Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean political audiences. It is very controversial, and is being cynically and surreptitiously advanced under the pretext that it will make the electoral system more democratic and diverse. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is a ruse to win an election that the government fears it is likely to lose.

Let us examine the four proposals for change. The first proposal requires candidates to secure at least 50-plus one per cent of the votes cast in an election in order to become a Member of Parliament. If the 50+ threshold is not crossed, the proposal is to have a run-off election 15 days later to determine which candidates should be declared the duly elected Member of Parliament.

The run-off is standard practice in France and other countries in which their electoral institutions were shaped  by the Gaullist tradition. It was introduced by De Gaulle to deal with problems which he had with multipartyism in the 4th Republic.

Gaullists now claim that francophonic practice is more democratic than the Westminster first past the post model (FPTP) which tends to yield pluralities rather than majorities. Indeed, the first past the post system is invariably pluritarian rather than majoritarian and leads to unfair outcomes in terms of seats won compared to number of votes cast. One analyst argues that “the Westminster system is justified more by history than by logic”.

No electoral system is however mathematically flawless. Supporters of the anglophone model argue that first past the post (FPTP) is simpler and less given to post election confusion. It is counter argued that this benefit accrues principally if there are more than two parties contesting the election and the losers who do not qualify for the supplemental withdraw from the race. At times, however, perverse outcomes occur unintentionally.

In sum, the “eventual” winner might not be the winner in the long run. This has happened before in France as voters gang up on one another and change their vote as the political environment changes. 

Some who support the run-off model argue that the model  discourages tribal voting in that parties might try to be more diverse and broadbased. They vote strategically, their aim being to win the first round and position themselves at the second round to help them get over the top. In doing so, they appeal to a broader base, unlike what happens in PR in which differences are amplified. The run-off formula, it is argued, tends to produce a more moderating influence on the behaviour and quality of parties and their leaders. The downside to this arrangement is that candidates who are in the lead at times find themselves displaced in the second round, particularly in close elections.

The second proposal provides that prime ministers will no longer be able to unilaterally determine the date for general and local government elections whenever it suited them or their parties. Former prime minister Patrick Manning loved to tease and play games with this feature of the Westminster system, which he at times took to absurd levels, saying that he had the date in his back pocket. The basic assumption governing the provision was that prime ministers needed flexibility and a measure of freedom to fix election dates when doing so was in the public interest. Some prime ministers however seemed to believe that they had a right to call general elections whenever they were spiritually advised to do so, or when the polls or the oracles advised that the times were propitious.  

The third proposed change was that which permitted a maximum of only two terms for Heads of State. The justification was to allow for a circulation of social and political power and a reduction of impunity. When leaders stay in power for too long, they are inclined to treat the state as if it belonged to them. This is a widely approved reform in most of the democratic world, but there are many who believe that the better thing to do is to allow voters to decide for themselves which is the better system. Let the demographics decide rather than some abstract system based on good governance creed. Interestingly, the latter argument was advanced by the Hugh Wooding Commission in 1974. 

The final proposal is the “recall” which provides that MPs could be recalled by voters if they fail to perform. The formula appears simple, but it could be problematic and lead to continuous chaos. The proposal to allow recalls only after three years have elapsed and the attempt to link it with the run-off idea does not seem to have been well thought out and should be scrapped or rethought. It is a nonsense.

Much of the debate has so far been focussed on the 50+ proposal which is new and which threatens to change our political landscape. The discourse has been based largely on political affiliation, ideology, race, ethnicity and opportunism. Everybody claims that their view is being determined by what is democratic, a word which has as more meanings than there are colours in the rainbow. There is very little cross ethnic trust, and if we are not careful, we may light a fire  that may burn like the Beetham dump, and be more difficult to extinguish. It is not merely a battle between Keith and Kamla. The natives are getting restless. Hear the drums and the tassas. Listen to Merle Hodge. 

There was no mention of the run-off proposal in the Report of the National Consultation on Constitutional Reform, or the consultations chaired by Drs Ghany or by myself. Withdraw the bill. The matter is too important and too complex to  be hustled through in the secrecy of night.

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