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The making of our President

By Michael Harris

(For Judy and Molly. Thanks but no thanks)

Very shortly we shall be witness to the process for the selection of a new President for the country. Regretfully, given the nature of that selection process which allows the Government of the day to install whomsoever it pleases, and given the track record of this present Government of making appointments to the most serious positions of state using party loyalty as the sole and exclusive criterion for such appointments, we can be certain that, at the end of the process, we shall have a President, regardless of who the appointee might be, manifestly incapable of fulfilling the role.

The fact that we can with certainty predict the outcome of the process for the making of our next President does not prevent us and indeed should spur us to reflect again on that process and, by logical extension, on the role of our President.

As far as the role of our President is concerned the first point which needs to be made is that the role, as defined in our present Constitution, is an unfortunate hybrid of two constitutional systems. Borrowing from the British constitutional system our President is, first and foremost, the Head of State. In that aspect of the role, like the British Monarch, the President is supposed to embody, represent and speak on behalf of the entire society.

Our President, in this aspect of the role, is not simply politically neutral but above the political fray. When the President speaks on the issues of the day that voice is not to be partisan in any way but be sounded always to remind us of the best and highest ideals of the nation to which we aspire.

Thus, in the making of a President who can fulfil such a role, we most emphatically cannot give thought to race, class, colour or creed. The institution of the presidency, as Head of State, is no place for a Hindu, Muslim or Christian; no place for an African, Indian, Arab, or Chinese; no place for a man or a woman, and above all no place for a political party member or supporter. The person who would be invested with the title and role of Head of State must be, and must be seen to be, a nationalist whose only allegiance is to the nation as a whole.

But our President is not only the Head of State. Our Constitution also defines the role as the commander of our Armed Forces and the repository of all Executive Authority. This delineation of the role is borrowed from the American constitutional system. There are at least two problems with this. Leaving aside for a moment the issue of the command of the armed forces, the fact is that our presidency is not, by the provisions of the very Constitution which designates it such, the repository of all executive authority.

The executive powers of the President are exercisable only within certain constitutional limits and most of his so-called executive actions must be performed in accordance with the advice of or after consultation with another executive authority, the Prime Minister, who is the real executive authority in the Constitution and in the land.

But if this were the only anomaly it would not be an insurmountable problem. For while the President might, wearing that fictional cloak of executive authority, proclaim Acts of Parliament, the entire country would know that the President was merely rubber stamping the will and dictates of the government led by the Prime Minister.

But our Constitution does not only create of the President a ceremonial Head of State and a ceremonial Head of the Executive. It goes on to give the President real executive powers, exercisable without reference to Parliament or Prime Minister, and without even judicial review.

Two bo-rat cannot live in the same hole. Here is the root of the problems with our presidents. It is in the exercise of these real executive authorities that the office of the President is brought within the political fray. It is in the exercise of these real executive authorities that tensions are created with the other executive authority — the Prime Minister, and it is because of these executive authorities that prime ministers seek to ensure that those selected to the office of President are pliable and reliable partisans.

It is because of this duality of executive power that many have advocated abolishing the institution of the presidency as it exists today and opting for a truly American style executive president. This is what Mr Manning was seeking to do with his efforts at constitutional reform before he was voted out of office and this is what my friend and former Tapia colleague, Denis Solomon, has recently advocated.

Mr Solomon wrote that we should "…have an executive president, elected separately and at a different time from the legislature, and accountable to it as a whole. Such a provision would go a long way towards shifting the power base of MPs out of the lap of the Maximum Leader and into their constituencies, where it belongs. The president would then need the endorsement of party or parties to be elected, not the other way around. After all, the president would not need to be party leader or, in theory, to be a party member at all."

Mr Solomon's focus is not on the issue of the duality of executive power, but clearly any proposal for executive presidency, whatever its rationale, gets rid of the problem of executive duality. But such proposals also get rid of the role of the Head of State, as the embodiment of the best and highest ideals of the nation. And we do need to ask whether, given the rampant divisiveness, polarisation and partisanship, which characterises our politics and our society, we can afford to get rid of one of the few constitutional institutions which can assist in bringing us together as a united people.

Another alternative might be to keep the institution of President as Head of State, stripped of the executive authorities it now possesses (to which other institutions or persons these powers would be divested would be a question for much debate) and change the method for selection of the President so that the selectee will no longer be, or perceived to be, a pawn of the Prime Minister.

Unfortunately we shall not be able to say that of our next President.

• 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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