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Fooling some of the people

December 24, 2000
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

I AM not sure when the Court will determine the fate of Winston Peters and William Chaitan. However, it is useful to remember that all countries have laws that circumscribe the conditions of representation.

In the United States, no matter how smart one may claim to be or the political offices one may have held, a naturalised citizen cannot become the president of the union. It would be preposterous for Peters to shout that he is an authentic US citizen and therefore cannot be denied that right. Although Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, former and present secretaries of state respectively, served with distinction, neither can become the president of the US. Since over 50 per cent of Americans fall into this category, using Peters’ and Chaitan’s logic, over 125 million Americans are being betrayed by their adopted country.

The Israeli constitution also outlines the guidelines under which a citizen can become the Prime Minister. Like T&T’s constitution, it is very much a product of its complicated American and English roots. Eighteen months ago, Benjamin Netanyahu served as Israeli Prime Minister before Ehud Barak defeated him.

On December 9 when Barak resigned as Prime Minister, Netanyahu could not offer himself as a candidate since Israeli election law disqualified him from running for that office. Under Israeli law, only members of Parliament can run for the premiership.

Although Netanyahu’s supporters in Parliament amended the election law to allow him to run, he could not enter the race until such a change was made.

The paradox of Netanyahu’s position is interesting. Even though he led in all the opinion polls, he could not be nominated for office or run for election although many of his fellow citizens wished him to do so. Israeli’s Election and Boundaries Committee would not have allowed that to happen. Therefore, he did the first thing first. His supporters in Parliament changed the law even though they did not disband Parliament. Then and only then could he contemplate running for the office of premiership.

That is how things are done in “civilised” societies. One begins with the presumption that laws are to be respected if the union is to be preserved. This is where President Arthur N R Robinson was going when he addressed the nation. He alluded to attempts at coercion and the perception of double standards that seem to exist in the administration of justice. His was a plea for reason and shared values. Without them, nations sometimes degenerate.

To hear the UNC tell it, Peters and Chaitan’s violation of the law is a PNM trick to deny people their representation. Peters gets even more absurd. He boasts that he never voted. Yet, by virtue of his having been born in this land, he considers any law that restricts his ability to represent “his” people to be null and void. We are asked to embrace a piece of legalistic fiction that suggests the court turn a blind eye to an obvious violation of election law and only to consider the nobility of intention.

I am not sure that those who advocate such nonsense are aware of the implications of their folly or they know whereof they speak. No government can yield a scintilla of legitimacy if it enforces the laws it likes and disregards those it does not like.

When Basdeo Panday took an oath to “bear true faith and allegiance to Trinidad and Tobago” and to uphold “the Constitution and the law” he did not swear to uphold only the laws he liked. Using the Bhagavad Gita as his symbol of truth, he also swore to uphold those laws with which he did not agree. The nation expects that he will honour those truths.

As he contemplates the meaning of those truths, it is important to recognise that the society is being torn in two. A stolen election has emphasised a truth many citizens have felt instinctively. One segment of the community subscribes to one value system while another segment subscribes to another set of values. Some citizens believe that one side will do every illegal or corrupt thing to achieve its aim even if it redounds to the further division of the society. Panday and his colleagues are deceived if they believe that the national scam that passed as an election has had no effect on the national psyche.

Nations, by their very definition, are very fragile things. They can be likened to precious gems or delicate plants. They must be guarded over with utmost care if they are to maintain their sparkle, their grit and their delicacy. Those who are given the responsibility to steer the nation’s ship of State must remember that without respect for our laws and a commitment to fair play, a nation crumbles.

Yugoslavia and even the Ivory Coast bear out this lesson eloquently. This is where President Robinson was going when he addressed the nation on Monday last. Without saying it, he realised that civilian as well as State leaders had become too careless.

A Solicitor-General, a public servant, offers advice without it being sought. Then, via the AG’s office, it is sent to the newspapers. An AG, a resolutely political office, postures itself as being non-political. The head of a non-political office, advises an electorate to vote, even though some may have done so in contradiction to the law of the land.

In such a scenario, up can be seen as down, and down as up. Jack Warner can presume to advise the President because he is wealthy and laws, it is believed, can be changed retrogressively to suit the fancy of the day. Even the myth of lawfulness and legality must now lay prostrate to the gods of efficiency and anything goes.

As we await the word of the court, we will see how the admonition “to do right to all manner of people without fear or favour, affection and ill will” plays out in the end. We cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

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