If you start with a lie...
By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 30, 2023
I wish to congratulate Christine Kangaloo for having been elected to the highest office of the land.
Whatever her strengths and/or weaknesses, she now represents all Trinbagonians and so we ought to pledge our allegiance to her. As she said in her acceptance speech: "Now that the election is over, I look forward to serving our country in the only way I know how—with love for all and with an unwavering belief in the innate goodness of our people."
However, we need to ensure that the process to select our presidents is more democratic and inclusive so that we elect the best person to the job. We need to ask how much we have learned after 47 years of republican history and what we must do to improve the selection process.
First, more people must be allowed to participate in the process of selecting a president. As it stands, a vast number of our citizens have no say in the selection of our president. While the candidates are named by the political parties, the public is given little time to discuss the candidates' strengths and weaknesses. In the last act of this political drama, the public had about ten days to discuss the choices with which they were presented.
At present, the parties (the PNM and the UNC) are responsible for proposing candidates for the presidency. I am not sure that the choices of these two parties express the sentiments of the nation. In 2020, 685,297 or 58.04 per cent of an electorate of 1,134,135 people voted. The PNM and the UNC received 322,250 and 309,188 votes, respectively. Only 13,062 votes divided the parties.
Given these figures, each party represented about 28 per cent of the population. How, then, do we ensure that the other 42 per cent of the population are given a chance to participate in the selection of the president?
Therefore, we ought to create a mechanism whereby the general public, outside of the political parties, are able to influence the choice of these candidates. Whatever we do, it is important to encourage the larger public (that is, the 42 per cent of the electorate who did not vote and dissenters in the parties) to participate in the process.
Second, to the degree possible, we should resist the tendency to select openly partisan politicians. Whatever, they might say, they cannot help but be swayed by their previous political commitments. It is difficult to believe that someone who once openly declared that she will promote the gospel of the PNM throughout the length and breadth of the land can now be fair and even-handed.
President-elect Kangaloo has declared that "impartiality has been [my] track record and this will continue to be [my] guiding principle in [my] relationship with the Government, the Opposition, and the people of Trinidad and Tobago". It is even more perplexing when she says: "I can tell without anyone being able to contradict me, that I never did anything on a partisan basis."
It would have been more creditable—and I suspect more truthful—if she had said: "In spite of my partisan past, I will try to be even-handed in my dealings with the Government and the Opposition as my present position demands." Experience suggests that if one starts with an untruth, one is more likely to continue along that path. The President-elect needs to be more careful in her utterances.
Third. Over the years we have moved from presidents who have been more widely educated (in academics and working experiences) to those who were more narrowly specialised. Five of our seven presidents have been lawyers. Ellis Clarke, our first president, was a lawyer and a Roman Catholic; Noor Mohammed Hassanali was a High Court judge and a Muslim; Arthur NR Robinson was an economist, and a practising politician; George Richards was a chemical engineer; Anthony Carmona was an international judge and a Roman Catholic; Paula-Mae Weekes was a retired Justice of Appeal and an Anglican; Christine Kangaloo, former president of the Senate, is a lawyer and a Presbyterian.
While knowledge of the law might be helpful to understand the mechanics of the office, it should not be a major criterion in determining the qualifications of a president. The president of the country should understand the historical development of the country and, where possible, should strive to fill the missing political, social, cultural and religious lacunae of the society.
Fourth. We cannot boast of being a country where every creed and race finds an equal place when, at this present moment, there is little visibility of the largest religious group, the Hindus, at the highest levels of government.
Fifth. One may accuse the PNM of being narrowly partisan and somewhat nepotistic in its selection of the president. However, the UNC was even more irresponsible in proposing a candidate who seems to be too intemperate for a position that essentially calls upon one to bring the nation together. The selection of Israel Khan, SC, spoke poorly about the judgment of the leader of the Opposition.
Sixth. The nation needs leaders to bind the society together. To achieve that goal, a leader must interweave the many ethnic and cultural strands of the society into a seamless fabric. S/he must possess the humility, the civic knowledge, and the statesmanship to achieve this goal.
People make a constitution; a constitution does not make a people. Neither does it take a lawyer to understand a society's history in its myriad dimensions. This is why we need to widen the net of the candidates we consider, and solicit the views of all of our citizens when next we select the highest officer of our republic.
—Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.
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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe