FISTS UP: Leader of the Congress of the People (COP) and Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar gesticulates during a press conference at the COP’s Operations Centre, at Charlieville, Chaguanas, yesterday. –Photo: KITTY KOWLESSAR

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COP VOTES FOR DELAY

As constitutional reform debate gets off the ground today, party divided on bill

By Juhel Browne CCN Senior Multimedia Journalist

Congress of the People (COP) political leader Prakash Ramadhar, the Minister of Legal Affairs, is expected to convey to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar before the debate on the Constitution Amendment Bill begins at 10.30 am today his party’s decision that MPs delay their vote on the legislation.

Ramadhar made the announcement during a news conference held at the COP’s Operations Centre in Charlieville after the party’s national executive council met and held, what the Express understands, were heated discussions on the proposal for run-off elections contained in the bill.

That measure is meant to provide for a supplemental election to be held 15 days after a general election in the event that any candidate wins a constituency with less than 50 per cent of the vote. “The change that is now coming before the Parliament is the change that we wanted to introduce. It is now before us. Of course, the manner in which it has come in terms of the speed and the complaints, justifiably from some quarters, is something that we have to attend to and today (yesterday) this party voted that there should be a delay between tomorrow (today) and the vote, the ultimate vote (on the bill),” Ramadhar said.

He said this was to allow for the population to “better understand the thing.” Among those who were spoke during the meeting was the COP’s founding father, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran who left the meeting before it ended. Dookeran, however, spoke with members of the media who were told by a COP representative they had to wait outside of the party’s Operations Centre during the meeting.

“My interpretation is that there is a general consensus that this matter should not be rushed and that the debate should conclude although it can start,” Dookeran said. Asked if he was directly opposed to any part particular aspect of the Constitution Amendment bill, Dookeran said: “I believe that there are different ways to achieve some of the goals and a Joint Select Committee in deliberation would look at it.”
Ramadhar said a Joint Select Committee was “one option.”

“Or at least for some further time and the party has taken and it is a very reasonable position. So it’s really a matter for the Prime Minister in relation to how we go forward and I will communicate with her as to our party’s position on that,” Ramadhar said. That position, however, has not eradicated divisions within the COP on the proposal for run-off elections.

COP chairman and Public Administration Minister Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan said: “Members of the Constitution Reform Committee of the party were of the view that they themselves who followed closely the debate, the national debate, and made contributions at almost every one of the consultations at no point in time did the party even recommend run-off or neither did they at any point in time were they privy to any such debate or any discussion on the run-off.”

Ramadhar, the chairman of the Constitution Reform Commission, was asked if the run-off proposal was ever discussed prior to it being included in the bill. “Yes. It was not at the consultations itself but in terms when we had to sit to do a proposal as to how we move forward,” he said. Seepersad-Bachan said there “are many” in the COP who feel that if the run-off elections as written in the Constitution Amendment Bill “would be the end of any party that tries to represent the third constituency and speak to the demise of a multi party system.”

“But there are those who are of the view that such a matter would lend to improving the position of minority parties,” she said.
Ramadhar said the intent was to meant to enhance the nation’s democracy. “I ask the question for all those who believe it was going to kill off third parties if it wasn’t for our gumption and I have to boast a little bit about the COP we would have ended our existance in 2007,” he said. Ramadhar would not say how he and the other four COP MPs would vote on the bill if the Prime Minster rejects the party’s position on the matter.
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