Local Government elections are to be held on Monday, October 21, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced yesterday.
However, she said this Local Government will be different since her Peoples’ Partnership Government intends to table legislation in the Parliament immediately to amend the Municipal Corporation Act 1990, in a bid to introduce a system of proportional representation for the election of Aldermen.
She said the bill to amend the act will reach the Parliament by September 6.
According to her, it does not require the support of the Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) since all it needs is a simple majority to be passed.
Persad-Bissessar’s announcement follows weeks of public debate and pressure from several sectors, including the PNM and the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) for the elections to be called when they are legally due which would have been by October.
Speaking at the post-Cabinet news conference at the Office of the Prime Minister in St Clair, Persad-Bissessar made it clear she was not afraid of facing the polls.
The People’s Partnership lost the January Tobago House of Assembly elections and the UNC was defeated in the July 29 Chaguanas West by-election.
“I am not a coward. I am not afraid of the voice of the people—on the contrary, I draw my political strength and inspiration from it,” Persad-Bissessar stated.
She said she will “not follow the precedent set by some of our predecessors and use the burning issue of local government reform as an excuse to avoid facing the electorate”.
Persad-Bissessar said “councillors will continue to be elected in the same way they are now elected under the first past-the-post system”.
She explained, however, that legislative changes will now mean that all “councils will have their complement of aldermen increased to four to ensure that there is no inequality between councils where aldermen are concerned.”
“The recommendations of the Elections and Boundaries Commission for the seat distribution and boundaries in existing councils will be implemented, and the current method for choosing Aldermen will be abolished,” she said.
Persad-Bissessar explained that the Municipal Corporations Act was passed over 20 years ago and it must be revisited to address the rapidly evolving and changing social, economic and cultural environment of the 21st century.
According to her, the concept of proportional representation had been advocated as a fairer and stronger system for many years now.
“It has had the blessing of the Wooding Commission in 1974. More recently, the 2006 draft constitution of the Principles of Fairness Group proposed a system of proportional representation for the election of senators.
“The idea was that parties should have a slate of senators that is known beforehand to the public at a general election. Seats in the Senate would be allocated in accordance with the number of votes cast for a party,” she said.
Persad-Bissessar described the changes as “a unique and attractive idea” which she said she wished to introduce in the local government elections.
“It will represent an historic foray into the virgin territory of proportionate representation which many feel is an idea whose time has come,” she said.
The Prime Minister identified the members of the Principles of Fairness Groups as Marjorie Thorpe, PhD (chairman), Archbishop Edward Gilbert, Integrity Commission chairman Ken Gordon, Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie, PhD, Tajmool Hosein, TC, QC, (deceased) and Arthur Lok Jack.
“I think it is wise to incorporate it (Proportional Representation) into the political and democratic process for the election of aldermen which, by analogy, is the equivalent of party appointed senators. The directors of the Principles of Fairness Group, she said, were Dr Hamid Ghany, PhD; Patricia Mohammed, PhD; Satnarine Maharaj and Noble Khan.
According to her, “the fundamental issue is the implementation of a policy to further democratise and strengthen the local government bodies in such a way as to allow the electorate greater control over the election of all persons who would hold office in all of the Councils.”
Persad-Bissessar added that the time has come to have the aldermen elected by the population and not selected by the councillors after an election.
“Our examples over the years have shown us that this process can be manipulated and controlled by political deal-making and political indiscipline to the detriment of the population who have no say in what the councillors may want to do after they have been elected,” she said.
She added that this new system when it becomes law will ensure that every vote will count in every district because those votes will be used to calculate the allocation of the seats of aldermen.
“Even if a single party were to win all of the seats on the first past-the-post system, there will more than likely be an allocation of at least one alderman to another party which will ensure that another political voice would sit on such a council,” she explained.
She added that all political parties will now be required to provide a list of names of potential aldermen whose number will be equal to the number of the electoral districts and who themselves will not be candidates in those districts.
This, she said, will be necessary to ensure that the electorate knows in advance who the potential aldermen are likely to be by seeing in advance the pool of names from which they will be drawn.
Explaining further, the Prime Minister said up to four Aldermen will be chosen for each council by extracting the names of those persons whom each party would like to see as their aldermen from the lists provided by the said political parties.
She said such an extraction of names will be done in proportion to the total votes cast for each party for their councillors in the various electoral districts within a council.
She said that in the event any vacancies arise among the aldermen during the term of office of a council, such vacancies can be filled by drawing names from the unused portion of the list of names provided by political parties on nomination day.
“There will be no surprises,” she added.
Persad-Bissessar said there would be no impediment for persons who wish to contest electoral districts as independent candidates.
She urged all parties in the House to support this measure, saying it will “strengthen our democracy and allow the electorate greater control over those who are put forward to serve as both councillors and aldermen by ensuring that every vote will now count and no vote will ever be wasted again in any local government election in this country because people may feel that their party does not have a chance to win in their district.”