Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar disclosed yesterday she has given instructions that the provisions of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 with respect to fixed terms for prime ministers immediately apply to her so she can serve only one more term as leader of this country.
After over 17 hours of debate, the bill was passed just after 4 a.m. yesterday, with 23 Government members voting for it, 14 against, and one abstention.
The bill sought to provide fix terms of office for a Prime Minister (two terms and six months), right of recall and a run-off vote to ensure MPs receive 50 per cent of the vote before entering the House of Representatives.
Since the Prime Minister tabled the bill on August 4, there has been a firestorm of criticism, especially as it relates to the run-off provision.
While Congress of the People (COP) leader Prakash Ramadhar was in full support of the bill and its provisions, other COP members held concerns and called for the voting to be delayed, but there was no stopping the debate or the voting.
There are five COP members in the House—Ramadhar, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran, Public Administration Minister Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, Multiculturalism Minister Dr Lincoln Douglas and Minister of Social Integration Rodger Samuel.
Dookeran, the founding COP leader, was the first to break ranks, as he signalled early in his contribution he could not in good conscience support the bill.
Opposition MPs who spoke after Dookeran—Colm Imbert, Nileung Hypolite, Fitzgerald Jeffrey and Alicia Hospedales—all commended Dookeran for taking a stand for country.
Seepersad-Bachan, like Dookeran, expressed similar concerns over the bill and while Douglas called for the debate to be put on hold and for the run-off provision to be removed, he voted in favour of the bill when the voting took place.
Samuel did not contribute to the debate and abstained from voting.
Persad-Bissessar noted fixed terms for leaders and run-off voting was already present in jurisdictions such as South Africa, Uganda and Kenya.
She said former South African president Nelson Mandela, “the great man that he was”, did not seek a second term in office although the constitution provided for two terms.
Persad-Bissessar said there are those who want to stay in power for “power sake” and it was not her prerogative to stay in office, as she pointed out former prime minister Dr Eric Williams served as prime minister for 25 years.
“If it is I was so concerned about power for power sake, would I term limit myself,” said Persad-Bissessar.
She disclosed she gave firm instructions to the drafters that the legislation be drafted so that time limits on her own reign as Prime Minister begin from 2010.
Persad-Bissessar said history took place yesterday in the Parliament, where the collective Cabinet responsibility was lifted and the views of the minority were heard.
Referring to Dookeran, Seepersad-Bachan and Douglas, she said, “We have heard you. We gave you the opportunity to express your minority opinion, but with the greatest of respect I disagree with you and then we will see what the majority has to say.”
She emphasised the passage of the bill in the Lower House was not the end of the line. “When we finish here, it is not a one done deal, the debate has not ended. We have a second House, the Senate and this will go in due course as all law go, all bills go to, to the Senate... that in effect is a built-in delay mechanism in the passage of legislation,” she said.
The Prime Minister further said Cabinet members who said they were not aware of the bill’s provisions will have to explain themselves.
She said she noted online blogs which stated Cabinet members were unaware.
Persad-Bissessar said the bills were discussed at Cabinet several times and also at the Finance and General Purposes meetings. “That person will have to account... I don’t know who is saying they were surprised,” she said.
The Prime Minister also explained her revealing a PNM internal document which stated they discussed the very same provisions in the bill to apply to their own party.
She said she did so not to follow suit, but to expose the hypocrisy of the Opposition.
The House then went into committee stage, where the amendments were included in the bill.
Seepersad-Bachan queried whether the run-off provision would be removed, but was shot down by House Speaker Wade Mark, who said he would only be entertaining written amendments (from the Prime Minister).
The Prime Minister then moved that the House approve the amendments and a vote was taken.
Dookeran and Seepersad voted against this, while Samuel abstained.
When Ramadhar’s name was called, a member of the Opposition shouted “Shame!” but he smiled and ignored them.
Another vote was taken to approve and pass the bill, the same count was taken—with Dookeran and Seepersad-Bachan again voting against and Samuel abstained.
All Opposition members and Independent Chaguanas West MP member Jack Warner, chairman of the Independent Liberal Party, voted against the bill.
The controversial Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 was passed in the House of Representatives by the Government’s simple majority just after 4 a.m. yesterday. Here’s how the vote went:
YES - 23; NO - 14 ; ABSTAIN - 1
• Roodal Moonilal
• Kamla Persad-Bissessar
• Errol McLeod
• Prakash Ramadhar
• Dr Tim Gopeesingh
• Winston Peters
• Dr Suruj Rambachan
• Jairam Seemungal
• Nela Khan
• Clifton De Coteau
• Stephen Cadiz
• Nizam Baksh
• Dr Rupert Griffith
• Dr Delmon Baker
• Dr Fuad Khan
• Dr Lincoln Douglas
• Rudranath Indarsingh
• Stacy Roopnarine
• Ramona Ramdial
• Vernella Alleyne-Toppin
• Collin Partap
• Chandresh Sharma
• Dr Glenn Ramadharsingh
• Winston Dookeran (COP)
• Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan (COP)
• Marlene McDonald
• Dr Keith Rowley
• Donna Cox
• Nileung Hypolite
• Colm Imbert
• Fitzgerald Jeffery
• Terrence Deyalsingh
• Dr Amery Browne
• Paula Gopee-Scoon
• Alicia Hospedales
• Joanne Thomas
• Jack Warner
• Rodger Samuel (COP)