The constitutional amendments being proposed by the Government can be passed in the Parliament with a simple majority.
This is the view of Kenneth Lalla, a former head of the Public Service and an attorney who has written extensively on constitutional issues.
“The amendments do not affect the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual as set out in Section 4 of the Constitution,” he told the Sunday Express in an interview at his home in Valsayn. “It is a procedural issue in con-ducting elections.”
The Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration last week proposed four changes to the conduct of elections in Trinidad and Tobago to be embedded in the Constitution as law (see Box One below).
These measures have aroused sharp controversy, especially the run-off proposal. Former United National Congress (UNC) MP Subhas Panday asserted this measure will increase racism and even lead to bloodshed. Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley says it will create political uncertainty and allow the UNC to stay in power by delaying run-off voting by legalistic means.
Lalla, 88, is not disturbed by any of the four proposed amendments. Asked by the Sunday Express for his view on the two-term limit for the Prime Minister, he said this was adequate. “It will help prevent the establishment of petty dictatorships,” he said. “Ten years is adequate for a prime minister to impact on the electorate, to implement their philosophy or ideology, economically or otherwise, and so on.”
Asked if a term limit might increase in-fighting within political parties as people jockeyed to be the next leader, Lalla responded: “That might be a good thing. It will stimulate interest and innovation; you may find new persons coming in with new ideas.”
Lalla also supported the right of recall, but he felt the mandated three-year limit was too long for citizens to wait. Instead, he recommended a two-year limit, or 30 months at most. “Democracy would dictate such a provision,” he said. “In the same way citizens vote for you, in the same way, they should be allowed to recall you.”
An MP, he argued, is no different from an employee in a company, and if he doesn’t perform, he should be fired. “At present, the parties impose a candidate on the constituents. The question of recall here is crucial,” he said.
What about the right of recall being exercised successfully on the MP who is prime minister? “The king is dead, long live the king,” Lalla answered. In that scenario, the government would not necessarily collapse, he explained. Instead, someone else, such as the deputy prime minister, would be appointed.
Where the major problem arose, Lalla said, was in respect to senators. Since they were never elected, they would not be subject to the right of recall and could remain in their position for the five years. “The present Attorney General is not elected; the only person who can recall him is the Prime Minister,” he said. (The Report of the Constitution Reform Commission recommends senators be elected (See Box Two at right).
In respect to a fixed date for the general election, he noted provision still had to be made for an early election, such as when a vote of no confidence in the Government succeeded.
The amendment which has come under most fire is the proposed run-off when a candidate wins with less than 50 per cent of the vote. Although this measure was not part of the Report of the Constitution Reform Commission, Attorney
General Anand Ramlogan argues it is logically linked to the right of recall. Opposition Leader Keith Rowley has argued this measure would create political instability by allowing a defeated government to remain in office through legalistic means.
Lalla, however, said, “A recount is not unheard of or unprecedented.” He pointed out there was sometimes a delay after the general election when a candidate demanded this. A run-off, he said, was a provision in many constitutions.
“My rationale is that if you had four parties, and three got 70 per cent of the vote, and one got 30 per cent and won, then 70 per cent of the electorate would be denied the right to representation.” He added, “The run-off really ensures that the electorate is treated fairly.” Only in a case where the run-off might decide which party wins office, Lalla suggested the incumbent remain in power until this exercise was completed. “The issue should be crystallised, and that should not be impossible to do.”
But suppose no one got 50 per cent, even after the run-off? Lalla said the candidate with the most votes should be appointed—which means the amendment would be void. The only way to avoid this would be to hold a run-off under a different voting system which would make it impossible to win with less than 50 per cent. “But that would require a special majority,” said Lalla, “which the Government seems to want to avoid”.
Main points from a statement by Prime Minister
Kamla Persad-Bissessar on constitutional reform amendment
1. Term limits for the prime
In our present proposals, there is a simple amendment which prevents the president from offering the prime ministership to anyone who has served for two full terms or at least ten years and six months, which is the two constitutional terms. Once a prime minister has served for a period of ten years and six months (five years being the normal five-year life of a Parliament and the subsequent 90- day period by which general elections must be held)
2. Right of recall
This amendment would create the ability to recall individual members of the House after the expiration of three years from the date of election.
3. Fixed date for elections
It is proposed the life of a Parliament should ordinarily be fixed at five years. This will effectively fix the date for the holding of general elections.
4. Second ballot run-off voting
The run-off is often viewed as a corollary of the right of recall as an MP who is elected with less than 50 per cent of the votes cast is obviously immediately vulnerable to a recall. A run-off poll is proposed so that each member of the House of Representatives will only become such a member if he obtains more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in a constituency. This means where, on a first poll at an election that is not achieved, a second poll will within 15 days be held between the top two candidates.
Key recommendations of the
Constitution Reform Commission
1. The presidency should be retained in its current form, but the power to nominate and vote for a president should be extended to senators elected by the people.
2. The House of Representatives should continue to be elected by voters in each geographical constituency electing a representative by the first-past-the-post method.
3. The president should continue to appoint nine senators in his/her own discretion. However, the rest of the Senate should be elected by the Hare method of proportional representation.
4. The number of elected senators should be equal to the number of seats in the House of Representatives.
5. Each voter should be entitled to two votes, one for his/her member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Representatives, and the other to elect senators.
6. If one party gains more than 50 per cent of the total vote countrywide, that party’s prime ministerial candidate is appointed prime minister.
7. After the election, the number of senatorships allocated to each party is determined by the percentage of the total vote gained by that party.
8. If no party gains more than 50 per cent of the total vote, the elected senators choose a prime minister from among the prime ministerial candidates declared before the election.
9. If there is a tie or deadlock in the Senate vote, the president appoints as prime minister the leader of the party list that earned the largest single number of votes cast by the electorate.
10. Members of the House of Representatives should not be eligible for appointment as ministers. They should focus exclusively on their constituency duties and the duties of scrutiny as members of committees that oversee the executive branch of government.
11. Ministers should be appointed only from among the elected senators.
12. Members of the House of Representatives should be subject to the right of recall by their constituents.
13. There should be fixed dates for general elections.
14. There should be a limit of two consecutive terms for the office of prime minister, with the option of a prime minister returning after another person has served a term as prime minister.
15. The Cabinet, drawn from the Senate, should consist of the prime minister; the deputy prime minister; the attorney general; the ministers of Finance, Foreign Affairs, and National Security; and a limited number of other ministers drawn from among the elected senators.
16. The deputy prime minister should be appointed by the president, on the advice of the prime minister, from among elected senators.
17. The mechanism for removing a prime minister during his/her term of office should be a motion of no confidence passed by a two-thirds majority in the Senate.