Proportional Representation returned once more to the debating chambers of Parliament.
The debate was noisy, and many might have wondered what the drama was all about.
The hoary issue arose way back in 1961-1962, and had to do with the concerns of Indo-Trinidadians who felt that they were being marginalised as the country proceeded to independence.
Extremist elements demanded “parity or partition”, and voiced their concern at the Marlborough House Conference in 1962.
As the Indian National Association expressed it: “We the Indians, must demand parity with the Negroes in government, in the Civil Service, in the Police and every aspect of government. If there are thirty seats in the House, we insist on having 15. If there are 12 Ministers, we demand six. We demand that 50 per cent of the jobs in the Civil Service be given Indians, and 50 per cent of the men in the Police Force be of our community, as well as 50 per cent of the officers.”
Dr Eric Williams, speaking on behalf of the Afro-creole community, rejected communal representation outright.
The issue took various forms over the years, and still informs the ongoing debate.
Let us revisit the debate for the benefit of those who were not yet born.
There are many anomalies in our electoral system.
One of the basic criticisms is that it is akin to a horse race in which the winner gets all the power and most of the goodies. This is seen as being unfair.
What matters in our system is the number of seats and not the number of votes party “A” gets altogether.
Our system is at times pluralitarian rather than majoritanian. Another major criticism of the first-past-the-post (FPP) system is that it often exaggerates the electoral importance of the majority party and underepresents the strength of the losing parties which may get no seats at all despite getting the support of a substantial number of voters. We have seen this happen in respect of the ONR in 1981, in the PNM in 1986 and the COP in 2007.
These parties won between 20 and 40 per cent of the votes but got few or no seats.
The PNM got only three seats. Generally speaking, the main complaint was that the system lacked fairness and representativeness, and often led to the generation of “orphaned” voters whose votes did not count.
Many stay away from the polls because they lived at the “wrong” address: their votes were valueless. Many countries concede these absurdities and use one of the many versions of PR as an alternative to FPP.
FPP is in fact used in the few states which base their constitutions on the British model. There are many versions of PR and many criticisms. The main criticism is that it invariably leads to unstable coalitions and State failure or deadlock, particularly in countries which are deeply divided by ideology or ethnicity.
Since power has to be shared among the several parties in the coalition, cabinet carpentering is often necessary, time-consuming and chaotic: policy making is also often cynical and replete with compromises which generate cynicism.
Moreover, parties become mainly concerned with their own political positioning in the horse race and the survival of their leaders rather than what is best for the country as a whole. Deadlock and frequent cabinet reshuffles often ensue.
Either that, or ministries come to be “owned” by parties which claim the right to veto whatever they do not like. We have seen all of these things happen in Trinidad and Tobago in recent years, even though our system is based on FPP.
There are however many benefits to PR. Whereas a maximum leader tends to dominate policy making in FPP, in PR, power has to be negotiated and shared. There are also many points in the system where policy could be vetoed. Political and ideological consensus and process thus become paramount.
No party can be ambushed at 3 a.m. Some countries try to get the best of FPP and PR worlds by opting for semi-proportionality. The Germans, who incidentally have their federal elections today, elect half of the seats in the Bundestag (the parliament) using FPP. The other half is chosen by PR from a party list using a formula that is based on the outcome of the selfsame election. It is worth noting that the Germans found a way to eliminate the problem of too many mini-parties.
They provide that a party could only get a share of the quota votes cast if it wins at least one seat and crosses a qualifying five per cent threshold of the votes cast. Thresholds vary from country to country depending on demographic circumstances and on how political power is distributed.
At times the coalitions become so evenly balanced that deadlock emergences and a “grand” coalition becomes necessary.
What is our own experience? The PNM which was in power for most of the post independence years treated FPP as its talisman. Dr Williams considered PR a threat to the PNM’s hegemony. He thus cussed out the members of the Wooding Commission (1974), arguing that PR would destroy the PNM’s majority.
The Hyatali Commission (1987) for its part recommended maintenance of FPP at the level at the Lower House, and recommended PR at the level of the Senate. That got nowhere.
Sir Ellis Clarke who drafted a constitution at the request of Mr Manning (2006), recommended the introduction of a modest element of proportional representation at the local government level, but prime minister Manning would have none of it.
He believed that it might serve as the thin edge of the wedge, and that the electorate might well be seduced and led astray. He wanted no precedents.
Demographic realities are however changing fast. The PNM’s political hegemony is over, and the party may well have to revise its attitude towards PR and coalitional politics. It may in fact have no choice.
It is unfortunate that the country was ambushed by the People’s Partnership, and that trickery was used to justify an innovation whose time had come.