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Denis Solomon

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Legitimacy or power?

November 26, 2000
By Denis Solomon

IF I were Franklin Khan or Farad Khan I wouldn't want to win a Parliamentary seat by default. At the very least it would be difficult to face the constituents afterwards. And if I were Patrick Manning I wouldn't want my party to get elected on a double technicality.

But I would be concerned with legitimacy, not power. (At least until I got elected—after that, who knows. Which is why we would need a proper Constitution to keep my megalomania in check).

Our governments have always used the Constitution largely as a means of promoting their own interests. The most recent example of this was Patrick Manning's use of one provision of the Constitution (the Government's right to call a State of Emergency) to nullify another (the Government's inability to dismiss a Speaker of Parliament).

The citizenship laws have been a particularly fertile ground for the promotion of unworthy policies, or just plain stupid ones. The original ban on dual citizenship was the result of ignorance of the history of the country—the fact that a large part of the Afro-Trinidadian population had fathers or paternal grandfathers born abroad, and no way of knowing it, and so retained the citizenship of the UK and Colonies under British law. Indo-Trinidadians were largely unaffected, since the Constitution of India specifically denies Indian citizenship to overseas Indians.

That little problem would have annulled the citizenship of most of the PNM, probably including the whole Cabinet, on the first anniversary of Independence, were it not for the stupidity, generosity, or public-spiritedness (who knows which?) of Bhadase Maraj, Leader of the DLP Opposition. Since the Government didn't have the majority necessary to amend the Constitution, Bhadase could simply have waited until after nomination day and challenged the registration of every PNM candidate, thereby winning the election by default. Instead, he agreed to support the amendment.

Despite this the move toward acceptance of dual citizenship was not rapid. After the UK and Colonies, it was extended first to the Commonwealth Caribbean and then to other countries—a slow and reluctant acknowledgement of Trinidad and Tobago's status as a country of emigrants as well as, originally, of immigrants.

The slipshod nature of our legislation in general, and the concern for its immediate partisan as opposed to its public benefits, meant that the implications of each stage in this evolution were not thought through. That is the reason for the discrepancy between the right to foreign citizenship and the denial of the right to a Parliamentary seat for someone who has voluntarily acquired it.

The declaration required of Winston Peters and Bill Chaitan that they are not under allegiance to a foreign power is an anomaly, nothing more. It answers to no requirement of national policy. Somebody simply forgot to annul the requirement when dual citizenship was legalised.

Citizenship carries rights, and one of the most important of them is the right to represent one's fellow citizens in Parliament. To deny that possibility to people who are also citizens of another country is a denial of their fundamental civil rights, and to limit the denial to those who have acquired the foreign citizenship voluntarily is a double denial. An involuntary holder of foreign nationality is under as great an allegiance to the other country as a voluntary holder. If you are going to require renunciation in one case, you must also require it in the other.

People have criticised the Elections and Boundaries Commission for not annulling the two candidatures on the grounds of false information. The EBC is not supposed to be in politics. In fact it is, but in the wrong way. It has consistently demarcated the election boundaries over the years in favour of the PNM (with complete legality, I hasten to say). I do not know whether its claim to have no power to annul the registrations once they are made is correct. But if it had been concerned to uphold any policy enshrined in the citizenship law it could have taken the political decision to annul the registrations, and let the rejected candidates sue if they felt so inclined, rather than leaving it up to the public to bring petitions after polling day.

But, as I say, there is no policy enshrined in the law. And the EBC's decision is wise in one important respect. It gives the PNM the opportunity to show patriotism and avert possible public discontent. If indeed the two candidates remain on the list unless there is a challenge, the PNM should publicly refrain from making the challenge. They should announce that the rights of the people of Ortoire-Mayaro and Pointe-a-Pierre, and the moral legitimacy of the next government, take precedence over technicalities. They should also say that if they are elected they will correct the anomaly. In fact this is what they would do anyway, since at some time they will want to run candidates with dual citizenship. So to object now and correct the anomaly later would be hypocrisy.

It would also be a good idea for the UNC to demand such a commitment of the PNM. In fact, the UNC has no other recourse, short of whipping up public discontent if the PNM wins by a small majority.

All this is separate and apart from the question of the candidates' conduct in signing the form. The people of Ortoire-Mayaro and Pointe-a-Pierre have the right not to be deprived of a candidate when it is too late to get another.. But they also have the right not to vote for a candidate who is either too stupid or too dishonest to fill out a form correctly, and who is subject to prosecution for perjury if the latter is the case; or a party that does not screen its candidates properly.

Of course, none of this will happen. No party has the vision or long-term concern for the country to pass up the chance of an election victory, however morally fraudulent, and whatever Constitutional chaos or public disorder may result.

Illegitimacy or powerless?By: Amon Hotep Nov 26, 2000

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