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Dangerous and perfidious too

By Michael Harris

Over the last two weeks my fellow Express columnist Winford James has critically reviewed the report of the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) headed by Minister of Legal Affairs and political leader of the COP, Prakash Ramadhar. Mr James has done an excellent job of analysing the very evident and numerous shortcomings of the report and I commend his two articles to my readers.
But it would seem that not even Mr James, who correctly described the CRC report as “a most dangerous” one, has truly plumbed the depths of chicanery that is to be unearthed by a careful analysis of that report. For this report is not really concerned with genuine constitution reform. This report is, at its core, a perfidious attempt to use the Constitution to entrench a system of three-party politics and, by so doing, bring the COP back from the dead.
That is why the report can afford to ignore or give short shrift to critical constitutional change issues such as Tobago autonomy or strong local government and why, as Mr James points out, it does not even bother with any semblance of analysis as to what the real governance problems in the country are or how the existing Constitution exacerbates or reinforces such problems.
Indeed, as Mr James points out, the report reads “like a recipe of recommendations from the commissioners’ minds for reforming the Constitution based on their interpretation of the views they heard and, clearly, their own ideological biases.” And that is where the chicanery comes in. For the entire exercise of consultation, pre- and post-report, was nothing but a gigantic bramble designed to camouflage the commissioners’ real intention.
That is also why the CRC report is littered with snares to entrap the unwary, the gullible, and those who are seeking their 15 minutes of fame. The report raises and leaves unresolved a whole host of contentious and controversial issues which are certain to excite a lot of useless argumentation and divert attention completely from the dangerous recommendations at the heart of this report.
So already the population has gone off on a tangent about “gay rights” (whatever those are) and when they are finished with that they can waste more time with capital punishment, God in the Constitution, Rights of the First Peoples and a plethora of other herrings of various shades of red.
Meanwhile at the heart of this report is the following proposal. That Parliament should consist of two Houses—the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate shall be the seat of the executive i.e. the Government, since the Prime Minister shall be elected from among senators and ministers can only be appointed from among senators.
All senators, except for nine appointed by the President, shall be elected by proportional representation. The number of senators allocated to each party contesting the election is determined by the percentage of the total vote gained by that party.
And this is the clincher. If one party gains more than 50 per cent of the total vote country-wide that party’s prime ministerial candidate is appointed prime minister. But, if no party gains more than 50 per cent of the total vote, the elected senators choose a prime minister from among the prime ministerial candidates of the parties declared before the election.
That’s it. Interesting hybridisation right? Let those who wish to be fooled, be fooled. Those of us who have the interest of this country at heart cannot afford to be naïve. The true impact of that proposal can only be judged in the context of our recent electoral history.
The fact is that our two traditional parties, the PNM and the UNC, are both minority parties neither of which can, in normal circumstances, on their own, win 50 per cent of the vote. The PNM, ever since the crushing defeat of 1986, has in the seven general elections held since then, garnered more than 50 per cent of the total vote on only one occasion (2002; 50.89 per cent). The DLP/ULF/UNC has, in the 12 elections held since 1961, garnered more than 50 per cent of the vote on only one occasion as well. (2000; 51.74 per cent)
What this means is that as long as there is a third party of any substance in an election the likelihood is that none of the parties will gain 50 per cent of the votes and the prime minister and hence the government will be chosen by the elected senators. And the choice of government and prime minister will no longer be left to the electorate but be made by coalition arrangements and horse trading among senators.
Certain consequences become immediately apparent. First, in such a constitutional arrangement, there will always be a third party and indeed a fourth, and fifth and sixth party. And why not? As long as a party gets some percentage of the total vote (the report does not specify any threshold), it can always hope to be part of the horse trading and get into government.
Another certain consequence is that under such a constitutional arrangement, the UNC and one or more of the smaller parties will always be in a position to form the government. The PNM, after all, insists on its foolish credo that it will stand alone or fall alone. So that presumably it will not stoop to coalition arrangements.
And if you think that all of this arises out of my paranoid fancies listen to the words of the report itself. “The introduction of a method of election that will force consensus among members of a revised senate will create the conditions for power-sharing and coalition, as opposed to single party domination.”
Those are the key words: power-sharing through “forced” coalition. And that is what the COP is after. Given their experience in 2007 they know that under the first-past-the-post system they have no chance of winning a seat far less an election. They also know, after their experience of last year, they are not the same party they were in 2007. These constitutional proposals are how they intend to keep some toehold on government and on power.
But the danger and the perfidy of this report go even beyond all that I have already stated. For in their haste to reorganise the Senate in their own political interests they have given scant and insufficient regard to the ancillary arrangements they are proposing. The most serious of which is that both Houses of Parliament would have equal powers.
It does not take too much imagination to see why this is a proposal which will inevitably lead to total governmental gridlock. The commissioners in their attempt to hijack the Constitution for their own narrow interests have recommended a prescription for the total collapse of government. Dangerous and perfidious indeed.
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and
commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean
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