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Panic Over the Marginals

By Sunity Maharaj

 Stripped of its pseu­do-democratic fluf­fe­ry, the Prime Minister’s bill reveals itself as a naked strategy to improve the United National Congress’ (UNC) chances in the critical marginal seats. 

What drives this bill is not democracy but UNC fear that Jack Warner’s Independent Liberal Party (ILP), and any other party to emerge between now and the next election, will split the vote and open the way to a People’s Nation­al Movement (PNM) victory. 

The Prime Minister’s run-off mechanism for a second round of voting between the top two performers is a strate­­gy designed to eliminate the threat of third parties, at substantial new costs to the taxpayers. Her cold calculation is that forced to choose between the UNC and the PNM, supporters of the ILP and other parties would set aside their differences with the UNC, return to the pattern of 2010 and vote the UNC back into office.

It is a very big gamble which, in the current political climate, is almost guaranteed to backfire.

The stakes are so high that the Prime Minister has brought her trump card to the table—herself. By taking ownership of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, she is betting every ounce of whatever public trust she still enjoys to carry it through Opposition objections. What she didn’t cater for was the integrity of Merle Hodge, the self-confidence of Carlos Dillon, the cla­rity of Martin Daly and, most significant of all, the mushrooming confidence of a public opinion, awakened by the heady elixir of its own power.

As in her handling of Anil Roberts, the Prime Minister is showing herself to be out of touch with the political dyna­mics of public opinion in Tri­nidad and Tobago. Though she is politician enough to read the wind, and cunning enough to devise strategy, she seems oblivious to the deep, unrelenting undercurrents which are picking up speed in carrying the politics forward.

The expanding political centre that has been voting governments in and out of office for the past 28 years is rapidly coalescing away from her and gathering at a location yet to be determined. For sure, it is not with the Congress of the People (COP) where the impulse for suicide is so powerful that its political leader has already signed its death warrant by supporting the PM’s bill.

If there’s anything to be gained from this bill, however, it is the understanding of why the public was so mistrustful of, and disengaged from, the Constitution Reform Commission under the chairmanship of Prakash Ramadhar. The public suspected then, and is vindicated in the position now, that the Prime Minister’s rejection of an independent constitution commission was a cynical attempt to exploit our deepest longings for constitutional change, in order to keep herself and her party in power. 

Perhaps, the good and decent citizens who agreed to add their credibility to a commission chaired by Minister Ram­adhar can now clearly see the political farce for what it was. The Attorney Gene­ral’s resort to the usual sophistry in condemning those with the courage to speak out has in no way diminished them. I, for one, am relieved to hear that Merle Hodge was “handsomely compensated” for her work on the commission. Finally, value for money from a notoriously squandermanic Government. Thank you, Sister Merle. We are in your debt.

Ultimately, the greatest danger posed by the PM’s bill is its potential for disrupting T&T’s political development. At a point in our political evolution when we are so consumed with finding a way to break free from the bondage of the colonial hangover of divide-and-rule, this bill actively seeks to eliminate—even annihilate—minority inte­rests by locking us into the old static framework of a two-horse race. Nothing could be further from the principle of proportional representation. 

As for the other two elements of the bill, two-term limits for prime ministers and the electorate’s right of recall, both can be dismissed as froth, designed to mask the UNC’s bid to run off with the marginals.

If passed into law, they would change nothing. The right of recall requires so many signatures as to be unworkable while the idea of two five-year terms for prime ministers is a solution looking for a problem that T&T vo­ters have long ago dealt with. 

Contrary to the Prime Min­ister’s assertions about fossilised leaders, etc, etc, our reality is that no Prime Minister since Dr Eric Williams has managed to survive for more than one full five-year term. Over the past 33 years, we have witnessed a non-stop parade of one-term prime ministers, starting with George Chambers in 1981. While Basdeo Panday got two terms, ANR Robinson snuffed out the second in a matter of days. Patrick Manning got a second consecutive term in 2007 but derailed himself with two years to go. If anything, the PM’s floating of the idea of two-term prime ministerships is in the realm of subliminal seduction. It is designed to plant her plea for a second term into the electorate’s heads as a natural part of the political order.

Issues of two terms and right of recall may be moot, however. Within the next 24 hours, the fate of Kamla Persad-Bissessar could be sealed if, having riled up public opinion, she insists on railroading her bill through Parliament. If she insists on for­-

cing voters to choose a party not of their choice, chances are they will teach her a lesson by voting against her.

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