CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM IN TRINIDAD


Constitutional Reform in Trinidad and Tobago is on the political agenda. In recent discussions between Prime Minister Manning and Opposition Leader Panday, the latter agreed to support an executive presidency, as proposed by the former, if the electoral system is changed to proportional representation. There is a stalemate.

The demand for proportional representation is self evident if the 2007 election results are examined. The PMN (People’s National Movement) obtained 26 seats, or 65 percent of the seats, with 45.85 percent of the votes, the UNC (United National Congress) obtained 15 seats with 29.73 percent and the COP (Congress of the People) obtained no seats but got 22.64 percent of the votes. The combined opposition therefore obtained 35 percent of the seats with 52.37 percent of the votes. The supporters of proportional representation argue that the first past the post system that operates in Trinidad and Tobago, for the reasons explained above, is unfair.

A conference was sponsored on 9-10 November by YesTT and CRF (Constitutional Reform Forum), two non-government organsations, on XXXXX to discuss, among other things, proportional representation. I was invited to speak about proportional representation in Guyana, not as Speaker of the National Assembly, but as a former long standing member of the Guyana Elections Commission which implements the system of proportional representation; and as Chairman of the Constitution Reform Commission which received extensive memorandums on our electoral system and made certain recommendation involving the representativeness of our system which were partially implemented. I believe it was felt that I had a working knowledge of the system, its advantages and disadvantages, as applied in Guyana.

Almost from the moment I landed in Trinidad and Tobago I learnt that Trinidadians have been inculcated with the view that if they want to know about the devastating, negative, impact of proportional representation, ‘just look at Guyana.’ I did not think that this view was malicious. It was, however, clearly a misrepresentation of the reality designed to assist a particular political argument. I believe the argument is that ethnic and political insecurities, instability and violence have beset Guyana because of proportional representation.

I proceeded to explain the murky origins of proportional representation in Guyana, imposed in 1963 by the British Conservative Government for the 1964 general elections and described by then British Opposition Leader, Harold Wilson, as a ‘fiddled constitutional arrangement.’ I pointed out that he refused to change the policy after he became Labour Prime Minister which was before our 1964 elections were held.       

I pointed out that the first time large scale ethnic voting manifested itself in Guyana was in 1961. At those elections the votes of the PNC had gone up to 41 percent from 27 percent in 1957. This was followed the following year by large scale ethnic violence financed and directed by the CIA in now well documented revelations. The electoral manipulation by the British and CIA involvement in the destabilization campaign were all directed at creating the conditions for imposing proportional representation and thereby ‘legally’ removing the PPP Government. This in turn ushered in electoral manipulation and authoritarian rule for decades. I argued that therein lies Guyana political problems prior to 1992.

I suggested that Guyanese are now fiercely attached to proportional representation because of the proportionality which it ensures. This means that a party receives that amount of seats in direct proportion to the percentage of votes that it obtains at elections. I argued that Guyanese have been dissatisfied with proportional representation because of the lack of direct responsibility of a member of parliament for a particular constituency. The reason for this is because, prior to 2001, the entire country was one constituency and electors voted for a list of nominees submitted by contending political parties.

I explained that the Report of the Constitution Reform Commission reflected the dissatisfaction and recommended a higher degree of representativeness. Although it did not specify a particular system it discussed the constitutional provision which allows Parliament to implement an electoral system whereby half of the seats of the National Assembly can be elected by first past the post and the other half of the seats distributed to successful political parties in such a manner that proportionality is maintained. This means that any anomaly arising from the first past the post part of the elections will be corrected by the distribution of the remaining seats. It is assumed that adjustments would be made in the distribution to rectify any disproportionality arising from the first past post elections.

However, I explained that this system has not been implemented. Instead the country was divided into ten constituencies, in accordance with the boundaries of the ten regions, and 25 members of parliament are elected from these constituencies. The remaining 40 members are distributed in the manner described above. My own view which I offered was that this system has not really achieved the objective of increased representativeness and that presumably, at some time in the future, the issue will be revisited.

 

Hopefully, those members of the audience at the conference who might have had only minimal understanding of the Guyana’s system of proportional representation, were apprised of its origin, its impact, its current operation and the support it receives. No doubt Trinidadians, in reviewing their system and deciding whether it needs revision, will take into account the successes of proportional representation as it applies in Guyana in order to determine their own course.

If the last elections in Trinidad and Tobago were held under proportional representation, the PNM would have got 19 seats, the UNC 12 seats and COP 10 seats. 

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