Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Govt has divisive PR plan


Mark Fraser

 THE publication of the Report of the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution Reform Commission has sent an unmistakeable signal that the general election, constitutionally due in 2015, will be fought on the basis of proportional representation (PR), rather than the existing first past the post system.

Although the issue of proportional representation appears to have been innocuously introduced by the Constitution Reform Commission in chapter five of its report (Reforming the Parliament), nonetheless the chapter which follows demonstrates the commission’s preference for proportional representation.  Admittedly, chapter six —Reforming the Executive—deals with the choosing of a prime minister, but its wording, specifically in paragraphs 164-166, emphasises the commission’s decided leaning towards proportional representation.

Forget the specific question, that of choosing a prime minister, and instead examine the wording of paragraph 165: 

“The system of election that should be used is one that will permit a mathematically accurate reflection of the wishes of the electorate...”  In turn, in paragraph 166, the phrasing is instructive: 

“If a single party earns more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, then it will earn the proportionate number of seats and extract names from its list accordingly.”

The well publicised intent of the present People’s Partnership Government has been to do away with the traditional first past the post method and replace it with proportional representation, under which political parties contesting (usually) a general election will be apportioned seats in proportion to the votes they receive.

As of now only one Caricom country, Guyana, conducts its general election on the basis of proportional representation.  

The introduction of PR there was done in 1964 by the United Kingdom government. Guyana, then British Guiana, had been a colony of the United Kingdom and the British, urged on by the US  Central Intelligence Agency, did this to forestall the re-election of the Marxist, Dr Cheddi Jagan and his People’s Progressive Party, and have Jagan replaced by Linden Forbes Burnham, then leader of the Opposition People’s National Congress (PNC).

The advent of proportional representation in Guyana carried with it a strong appeal to ethnicity in this racially mixed society, as is Trinidad and Tobago, and Burnham’s PNC stormed home to victory after forming an alliance with the right wing United Force led by businessman, Peter D’Aguiar.  The PNC would later win the elections of 1968 and 1973 before it was ousted by Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party.  Perhaps I should state at this point that Burnham jettisoned the United Force following on his party’s victory at the 1964 polls.

What was and is unfortunate is that PR is institutionalised racism in ethnically mixed Guyana and has divided the country along ethnic lines. Should PR be implemented in T&T it can have the potential to do our twin-island state the injustice of cementing ethnic voting patterns. We cannot and must not allow this to happen. 

I have no doubt that the members of the Constitution Reform Commission have collectively acted in good faith.  Nonetheless, the People’s Partnership Government, judging by its several pronouncements in the past on PR, plans on introducing this sad lapse by fellow Caricom nation Guyana.

History will never forgive Forbes Burnham for exploiting PR, as in the long term interests of Guyana he could have initiated action and repealed the iniquitous legislation when Guyana became independent on February 23, 1970 and the country was declared, somewhat ironically, a co-operative republic.                

George F Alleyne

St Ann’s