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.