Wednesday, February 21, 2018

‘Run-off’ square off

Debate on Constitution Amendment Bill today...


PROTESTING: Suspended Congress Of the People (COP) members Satu Ann Ramcharan and Rudolph Hanamji protest over political leader Prakash Ramadhar’s decision to support the run-off system outside COP’s Operations Office, at Charlieville, Chaguanas, yesterday. —Photo: Curtis Chase


It seems to be a virtual fait accompli that the controversial Constitution Amendment Bill 2014 will pass if the House of Representatives goes ahead with the debate and vote on the legislation at today’s meeting at Tower D, Waterfront Complex.

The Prime Minister many well have a rethink in the light of the Congress of the People’s call for a delay of the vote for further consideration. The COP suggested that the bill be referred to a Joint Select Committee.

Notwithstanding these late developments, the Government was mobilising its supporters yesterday to gather outside the Parliament, where protestors are also expected to be present. The Government, has taken considerable amount of heat for bringing this measure and at a time when the Parliament is normally on its annual August recess.

The Opposition has insisted that this meeting is in contravention of the new Standing Orders (which came into effect at the start of this session) and which state that “unless there are urgent or extraordinary reasons for so doing, no sitting of the House of Representatives shall be held from the first week in the month of July to the first week in the month of September in any year”.

Leader of Government Business in the House Dr Roodal Moonilal has countered that the PNM registered no objection to today’s meeting when the adjournment was taken last Monday. The proposals in the bill, the Attorney General and Prime Minister have argued, require a simple majority. The Attorney General said yesterday that the amendment proposing fixed election dates was the only measure which required a special majority.

But the other legislation proposals — the recall of nonperforming MPs, the two-term limits for the Prime Minister and the run-off polls — can all be enacted with a simple majority, which the Government has.

A simple majority in parliamentary terms means the majority of MPs present and voting, not the majority of the total number of members of the House.

This is in contrast to a special majority which means a percentage (either 3/5, 2/3 or 3/4) of the 41 members of the House or of the 31 members of the Senate. The PNM’s numbers in the House today are expected to be down from its full complement of 13 MPs to 10. Not expected to be present when the House is called to order are Patricia McIntosh, Nileung Hypolite and Colm Imbert. This means that the total number of Opposition MPs would be 10 PNM and one ILP, Jack Warner — making a total of 11.

Assuming that all 11 Opposition MPs are present when the vote is taken, it means Government can pass these significant constitutional changes with a simple majority of just 12 votes. The House now comprises 40 MPs, the D’Abadie/O’Meara seat of Anil Roberts having recently been declared vacant by the Speaker. The People’s Partnership can command a total of 26 votes — 21 UNC MPs and five Congress of the People MPs (Winston Dookeran, Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, Lincoln Douglas, Rodger Samuel and Prakash Ramadhar). It is almost certain that all 21 UNC MPs would vote in favour of the measure.

It means therefore that the UNC does not need COP’s support to secure passage of the bills. Although it is almost certain that the Government has at least one COP vote in the bag — that of its leader Prakash Ramadhar, St Augustine MP, who led the Constitution Commission. However there are rumblings of discontent from the COP’s ranks. If any COP members, particularly Winston Dookeran and Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, are sufficiently troubled by the measures not to support them, this would be a significant blow to the Government, notwithstanding the passage of the legislation.

Those who object to the bills accuse the Government of tinkering with the Constitution in order to win an election.

The measure that has attracted the greatest adverse attention is the run-off proposal, which requires candidates who win by less than 50 per cent of the votes, to face a second poll against the runner-up. Opponents of the measure contend that this would exacerbate racial division, eliminate third parties, and could significantly delay the appointment of a new prime minister even in instances where there is a clear winner.

The Bill would facilitate the incumbent remaining in office and, critics say, allowing the incumbent administration opportunity for bribery, corruption and other undesirable shenanigans to influence the outcome of the second poll. The Bill states: “Where, after the first poll of a general election, one or more supplementary polls are, or are to be, held in accordance with Section 73 (4), the President shall not appoint the Prime Minister before the results of all the supplementary polls have been declared, but the current Prime Minister and Ministers shall remain in office until they are required to vacate office in accordance with Section 77 (2) (2) and 3 (a) respectively.”

Notwithstanding this, the Attorney General said yesterday that if one party obtains 21 seats or more, a clear majority, but there are run-offs to take place. “In a situation like that, it wasn’t the Government’s intention to remain in power. The President has the right to appoint as prime minister, anyone who in his opinion, can command the majority of the seats in the House. We have not interfered with that section of the Constitution at all.

So that in a case where there is a clear majority, His Excellency will no doubt exercise his power to appoint a new prime minister because there is a clear majority. The idea that you (the incumbent) remain for the 15 days (during which the run-off poll is held) only arises if there is no clear winner of 21 seats or more. And that has always been the case and it would remain the case because it is consistent with the existing provisions of the Constitution,” Ramlogan stated.

Ramlogan argued that the run-off proposal would enhance democracy.

He likened it to “supporting Brazil but they didn’t make it to the World Cup finals. But you get a ticket to go to the finals. You are sitting in the stadium. What do you do? Do you support Angentina or Germany or do you sit back in your chair and enjoy a good game of football. The choice is yours.”