Having stood firm in defence of the controversial run-off proposal, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on Thursday saw the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 pass through the Upper House with 18 senators in favour and 12 against.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of this new legislation, Ms Persad-Bissessar can count this as a political victory—at least until the 2015 general election. As she herself asserted, she was willing to commit “political suicide” in order to make this bill law. Her victory lies in having accomplished what former prime ministers have paid mere lip service to—concrete constitutional reform.
The process was far from perfect. The legislation was presented in a hurried fashion that itself caused suspicion among citizens; the run-off proposal was introduced in a surreptitious manner; and the defence offered by the People’s Partnership spokespersons seemed either duplicitous or an afterthought.
And the fundamental principle of constitutional change being made by simple, instead of special, majority, remains problematic.
It was left to the Independent senators to bring some rigour and depth to this debate. Despite the immense pressure of public opinion, several Independent senators made it clear that their votes would be decided by their own analysis and informed opinion.
Whether opposed or in favour, these senators helped change what had become a near-hysterical public discourse into more reasoned, albeit still impassioned, discussion. Most importantly, three senators forced the Government to make crucial amendments to the bill.
Despite all this, no minds appear to have been changed by the various arguments put forward. Those who were against the amendments remain convinced this legislation is a fundamental threat to the nation’s democracy; those in favour remain persuaded that the measures have advanced our political culture. After all, it is human nature to form an opinion and then find reasons to support it.
The proof of the run-off pudding will therefore lie in the 2015 general election results. Will the run-off provision change how people vote? If a run-off becomes necessary, how will the political parties try to persuade voters to support them? Will third parties be strengthened or undermined?
Even so, the run-off proposal has aroused interest in constitutional change in a manner not achieved even by the Constitutional Reform Commission in its several public meetings held over many months. The public debate should now continue at a more informed level, especially with respect to different kinds of voting systems, inasmuch as the average person still erroneously believes that one-person one-vote is the most democratic method of electing a government.
However the run-off and other amendments play in the future, a more politically committed citizenry might prove to be Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar’s signal achievement.