November 12, 2007

Trinidad & the CCJ

Electoral system, Manning /Panday politics, and CCJAnalysis
Rickey SinghSunday, November 11, 2007
Source: Jamaica Observer

In addition to returning Patrick Manning's People's National Movement to power and thereby breaking the defeat syndrome for incumbent parties, four of them in a row over the past 11 months, last Monday's election in Trinidad and Tobago seems to have conveyed at least four related clear and important messages.

First, the current electoral system of first-past-the-post needs to be changed so as to ensure fair democratic parliamentary representation, not now guaranteed by the winner-takes-all system that continues to frustrate hopes of tens of thousands of voters seemingly quite tired of a restricted two- party dominance.

As shown by striking examples in Caricom states like Jamaica and Barbados, third parties, however impressive their leadership, potential as an alternative force and quantity of votes secured, end up getting nowhere to ending two-party dominance, in the absence of a proportional representation electoral system.

The second message would be that the 75-year-old Basdeo Panday, undoubtedly the most charismatic politician the country has known for some three decades, and the first Indo-Trinidadian to be prime minister of the twin-island state, has overstayed his leadership of the party he built and took twice to power, the United National Congress (UNC).

He should now seriously make way - the sooner the better - for a more credible leader of the once solid mass support base the UNC had, and which has been systematically eroded with the most severe challenge posed at Monday's election by Winston Dookeran's 13-month-old Congress of People (COP).

Third, Manning should endeavour, now in his third successive stint as prime minister, the first of nine months having resulted from a controversial decision by ex-President ANR Robinson and not the electorate's verdict, to resist theatrical politics as a substitute for meaningful national consultations on fundamental national issues.

Theatrical politicsThe latest display of such politics in his past six years as prime minister was Manning's out-of-the-box decision last Wednesday to celebrate the PNM's landslide 26-seat victory for the new 41-seat House of Representatives, by arranging for the oath-taking ceremony as prime minister to be a public event at Woodford Square.

Made famous by the legendary Eric Williams, Woodford Square, in the heart of Port-of-Spain, has remained a traditional political stomping ground of the party and a symbol of PNM's dominance of state power since 1956 in a society with entrenched social/racial and political divisions.

For Manning, therefore, to have President George Maxwell perform the oath-taking ceremony at Woodford Square, instead of at the president's official residence, as a gesture to "bring government closer to the people", as he claimed, was simply ridiculous.

Quite legitimately, it was a celebratory occasion for the victorious PNM, and nothing to do with "bringing government closer to the people". A "thank-you" mass rally at the same place, immediately after he had been sworn in as prime minister would have been quite understandable by friends and foes.

All sections of the multi-ethnic, culturally diverse society would be aware that although the PNM has been successively heading governments, since 1986, with minority popular votes including the current one formed on Thursday, but with workable parliamentary majorities, the party deserves to celebrate its triumph at last Monday's poll.

For Monday's election, the combined popular votes of Panday's UNC and COP totalled 342,466 (a plurality of 42,813), or 52.38 per cent, compared with the PNM's 299, 813 or 45.85 per cent. But a Woodford Square oath-taking ceremony?

In its editorial last Thursday, entitled Nation-building challenge for PM, the Trinidad Express noted that it was "surprising" that Manning chose to have the oath-taking ceremony at Woodford Square.

"Symbolism", the newspaper said, "plays a great part in politics, not only here but elsewhere; and one has to wonder what was the received message by the tens of thousands of Trinbagonians who voted against the PNM, most of the population having voted against rather than for the party which, under our first-past-the-post system, now enjoys a legitimate hold on power..."


The fourth message points to the dilemma that the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) continues to face in having to function as a regional appeal court headquartered in a Caricom state where ruling and opposition parties cannot resolve differences to access it as their final appellate institution to replace the Privy Council in London.

Manning's new 11-seat majority in the new parliament is not sufficient to empower the PNM to go it alone in accessing membership of the CCJ and cut links with the Privy Council.

Electoral system

The immediate issue of importance for active consideration, however, would be for the political parties, representative organisations and institutions to focus on the need for electoral reform, possibly within the wider context of constitutional reform.

Such a development could end the charade of a "parliamentary democracy" that resulted at Monday's election with the COP securing 148,041 votes (23 per cent in a 56 per cent voter turnout) but failing to win a single seat.

A change to the corrective system of proportional representation, on the other hand, could ensure more diversified representation without necessarily resulting in feared racial/class divisions and political instability.

Guyana, Caricom's other major plural society, serves as an example. At its 2006 general election, for instance, while the governing People's Progressive Party and the main opposition People's National Congress maintained their respective dominant positions, a new Alliance For Change (AFC) party, with a comparative history like COP in Trinidad and Tobago, succeeded in winning five seats in the 65-member parliament with just over 28,000 votes or 8.04 per cent.

The bitter experience of Monday's election in Trinidad and Tobago for the COP had been suffered 26 years earlier by Karl Hudson-Phillips' Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR) in 1981, when it polled some 91,000 votes but was denied a single seat, in the absence of the PR electoral system.

Apart from consideration of promoting a change in the electoral system, for which a very strong argument exists in Trinidad and Tobago, the immediate challenge for the main opposition UNC should divest itself of its expedient pre-election "Alliance" component and pursue a thorough critical reassessment of its leadership and management structures in preparation for bidding farewell to its "silver fox" leader, Basdeo Panday.

It was laughable to see an angry Panday verbally lampooning COP's Dookeran, a once erstwhile party and Cabinet colleague, for the electoral defeat they both suffered by the PNM.

Objective analyses would point to many of the UNC's problems having to do with Panday's politics, following the 2001 general election, including the politics that led to a breakaway faction led by Dookeran, which subsequently spawned the COP.

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