Sunday, February 18, 2018

Reform urgent for head of state choice


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High on the list of coming attractions with potential to fulfill or disappoint hopes for a bright and prosperous new year is constitution reform. Late last year, Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar, who is also leader of the Congress of the People, described the process of "constitution reform (as) allowing citizens to participate in the way we govern ourselves".

He pledged to deliver on this assignment by May. And this is not a moment too soon for a Trinidad and Tobago more and more urgently engrossed by assorted doubts and disquiets about the prevailing constitutional arrangements.

Among seminal concerns is the constitutional relationship between Tobago and Trinidad, expressed as the realisation or expansion of internal self-government. Parallel with the raging Tobago House of Assembly election campaign, at least the start of a parliamentary debate on reform of the relationship should ensure top billing for concerns about how T&T governs itself as a two-island republic.

After conclusion of the Tobago vote, the republic will be engaged in the elevation of a candidate to the position a head of state. This process is formally defined as an election, and for the purpose the Parliament resolves itself into an electoral college. So far, and as usual in T&T, speculation is rampant about likely candidacies for the presidency.

Against this background, David Abdulah, leader of a now-estranged founding element of the People's Partnership, the Movement for Social Justice, has voiced timely admonitions about the importance of all that goes into the making of the next President. Do not be distracted by Carnival, he warned.

For two years, until June 2012, the MSJ had hung in there as part of the ruling Partnership, Mr Abdulah himself serving as a Government Senator. Last weekend, speaking with the insight of a once-privileged insider, he posed the rhetorical question about the presidential selection: "So will party loyalty trump once again the commitments made in the Fyzabad Declaration and Manifesto", signed by the Partners weeks before the May 2010 general election.

Among those "commitments", he cited the making of "choices based on merit…including making public appointments and to not politicise the civil service, commissions or State enterprises". Evidently, Mr Abdulah, who has spent more time inside the Partnership than out, considered those commitments to have been disavowed in practice. Evidently, too, he admits failure to correct such alleged abuses from the inside.

He has no doubt learned, along with the rest of T&T, that preserving the sanctity of such commitments cannot depend on goodwill or on adherence to back-room engagements, even if set to writing. This is why comprehensive constitution reform beckons now all the more compellingly as T&T looks forward, for a start, to discussions toward a more widely participatory way of choosing a President.