PORT-OF-SPAIN: On Tuesday, the Trinidad & Tobago parliament passed legislation allowing a two-term limit for a prime minister and a run-off in a general election in the event that a successful candidate fails to secure 50 per cent of the votes cast.
However, the Constitutional Amendment Bill, which was piloted by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, failed to get the support of two senior government ministers, including Foreign Affairs Minister, Winston Dookeran.
Dookeran told legislators during the 18-hour parliamentary session that he could not “allow the next generation’s interest be compromised by the politics of today”.
The legislation, which the government said needed a simple majority to be passed, also allows for a mechanism to recall legislators.
As she piloted the legislation on Monday, Persad-Bissessar told parliament that she would lift the collective responsibility of Cabinet in order to allow government legislators to vote according to their conscience.
During the session, Dookeran criticized Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, who has been engaged in a public quarrel with Dr. Merle Hodge, a member of the Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC) who said the run-off proposals had not been discussed during the public consultations.
“Dr. Merle Hodge is indeed a respected activist. It is unfortunate that she was attacked especially by my colleague,” said Dookeran as he referred to a letter submitted by the former University of the West Indies (UWI) lecturer on the run-off provision in the bill.
The run-off mechanism directly contradicts the principle of proportional representation, which is a central recommendation of the Constitution Reform Commission, Dookeran said.
“If I were to vote in support of this run-off mechanism I would be voting against the principle of proportional mechanism and that is my major concern at this point,” he said.
Dookeran said he had written a five-page document to Cabinet calling for the establishment of a Joint Select Committee and to have public consultation and that he was disappointed these suggestions were not accepted.
“This is not about the politics of today, this is about the politics of tomorrow and the next generation and I cannot sit here and allow the next generation’s interest to be compromised by the politics of today,” he said. “I set myself that course many years ago when I went in Mid Centre Mall (Central Trinidad) and called for a different kind of politics from what I inherited. That course is still in my mind and I am still motivated by it and I know it is right for the next generation of people in this country.”
Dookeran told legislators that the “process is just as important as the content and I say now that we cannot accept a mechanism that is in contradiction of a fundamental principle of the Congress of the People (COP), the second biggest partner in the four-member coalition government”.
Dookeran, the founding member of the COP, expressed concern that the country would be buying “cat in bag” with the proposed bill.
“The prime minister had announced earlier on that other legislation will come forward on proportional representation but we cannot deal with one part without dealing with the other part because then we will be buying cat in bag on this very fundamental issue for the people of this country.
“I have an obligation to myself and to my own conscience to support the aspirations of the 140,000 people who voted for the Congress of the People (COP) in 2007.
“I also have an obligation to ensure that the young people of this country will have a political and electoral system in which they can in fact have free and independent choice in the exercise of their democratic rights.
“Because I have to listen to my inner voice I have to indicate to this honourable House that I really will be unable to support this Bill in its present formation. I therefore have no choice but to vote against it at this point in time,” he said.
Legal Affairs Minister, Prakash Ramadhar, who also chaired the Constitutional Reform Commission, was the only COP legislator to support the bill. Minister Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, who is also the party’s chairman, voted no and senior minister, Dr. Rodger Samuels, abstained.
“I do not know if the history of Trinidad & Tobago would reflect a Prime Minister taking a bold step, it is bold, it is audacious and it is to be welcomed, to free her members of Cabinet to exercise a conscience vote in the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago,” said Ramadhar.
He insisted that third parties would not be destroyed under the new legislation.
“Everybody speaks of the death of third parties, this is an enlightenment of democracy, this is putting flesh on all that we speak about, about participatory governance, but they demonise it, you know why? What we have seen from the other side is that they want to return to what we call gatekeeping politics where the fear factor is a split vote,” said Ramadhar.
However, Chaguanas West legislator, Austin “Jack” Warner, disagreed with Ramadhar.
“This is a blatant attack on third parties…a recipe for chaos,” he said.
Warner said it was also important for the courts “to interpret the legislation, unless it is a deliberate ploy to the government to buy time”.
The bill will go to the Senate for debate.