October 05, 2001
By Raffique Shah
ON August 9, 1977, less than one year after the United Labour Front entered the first Republican Parliament of this country as the official opposition with ten elected members, the party was plunged into a crisis not unlike what the UNC is going through today. The party's executive had taken a decision to "recall" Basdeo Panday as Leader of the Opposition. In the ensuing months, President Ellis Clarke was called upon to interpret the Constitution and make far-reaching decisions which, in my view, would demonstrate just how the President's prerogative could be exercised in a manner not in consonance with others' interpretation of its provisions.
Clarke's actions then may just provide the precedents President Arthur NR Robinson needs in order to take certain decisions now.
I shall not go into details of what led to the split in the ULF, which, to this day, is still seen as a "grab for power" by the executive, and most of all by me. But I shall recount the events that occurred during the impasse, and focus on the words and actions of the President.
It is necessary to note that provisions for the appointment and removal of a Leader of the Opposition are clearly spelt out in the Constitution, and indeed, bear little to resemblance to those governing the appointment and removal of a Prime Minister. According to Section 83 (2) of the Constitution, the President appoints as Leader of the Opposition the elected member of the House who in his judgment is best able to command the support of the majority of Members of the House who are in opposition to the Government. And he may remove the sitting Leader of the Opposition whenever, again in his judgement, that person no longer commands that majority.
When the ULF split in 1977, the executive followed up the decision by having six MPs who remained within to write to President Clarke indicating that we no longer supported Basdeo Panday as Leader of the Opposition. Following extensive discussions on who should replace him as Opposition Leader (the records will show that I felt strongly that I should not be that person, since Panday and the media had convinced the country that this was a personal battle between us). The other five wrote to Clarke indicating their support for me to fill the position.
In the meantime, Panday had already used his office to have the President remove most of the six ULF senators: George Weekes, Joe Young, Allan Alexander, Lennox Pierre and George Sammy.
Days after the President received the letters from those supporting me, he summoned me to President's House where he explained that there were 12, not ten members in opposition to the Government (These included ANR Robinson and Winston Murray, the DAC MPs in Tobago). He added that since I had support from six members, he would want time to consult with Robinson and Murray to determine if they supported Panday or me. If they supported Panday, then he, too, would have six supporters, and as the sitting Leader of the Opposition, he would be entitled to stay in office.
I told the President that I absolutely agreed with him (and I really did: but it also gave me an opportunity to "cop out" of the position, since I had no aspirations to be Opposition Leader). Despite the protestations from the legal minds within the ULF, I thought we should not badger President Clarke.
Eventually, on August 19, the President summoned me to his office to say he was satisfied that I commanded the majority. He then handed the instrument of appointment, effective the following day. I did not ask him if he had contacted Messrs Robinson and Murray, or what they had said to him. As far as I am aware, up until then they had stayed clear of the ULF's internal battle.
But the internecine war was far from over. Panday went about mobilising Indian support throughout the traditional opposition constituencies, peddled lies, half-truths and innuendoes and, yes, he did win the bulk of the party's support base. He was also looking at every avenue for returning to the office of Leader of the Opposition. The first came to him like manna from heaven: Boodram Jattan (Naparima) had an old assault charge pending from the 1975 strike. When that matter came before the High Court sometime in February/March 1978, Jattan was convicted and jailed for five years.
Despite his appeal, Jattan was not allowed bail until some months later. In the interim, Panday was making behind-the-scenes move to regain the coveted position. On March 6, he got Winston Nanan (Princes Town) to withdraw his support from me and shift it to him.
President Clarke once more summoned me to his office to indicate that I no longer commanded the support of the majority of MPs in opposition to the Government. I pointed out to him that the situation was "even-steven", in that both Panday and I enjoyed the support of four MPs, making it a five-five situation. He countered by saying, "Oh, yes! But you cannot count on the support of Jattan since he's in jail." Told about Jattan's appeal which could allow him to return tomorrow on bail, Clarke was dismissive. Interestingly, after Panday was re-instated as Leader of the Opposition, Jattan did secure bail and returned to the House.
Urged by the party's executive (I was not about to fight for something I had never wanted in the first instance), I sought a meeting with the President to discuss the issue that he had fallen back on when the crisis first erupted. What, I asked him, was the position of the DAC duo, Robinson and Murray? These had never supported Panday, and had written Clarke stating as much. "Oh, but I am not convinced that you can command their support," he replied. He seemed at a loss for words when reminded that in the earlier crisis he had said he would need to find out if Panday could command their support, in spite of them being members of another party.
Because of my refusal to fight for the office of Leader of the Opposition, I did not engage Clarke in a war of words, or point out the inconsistencies in his two decisions. It was clear then, and made even clearer on April 14 (when the Crossing the Floor Bill came up for debate) that Dr Eric Williams and the PNM did not want this rebel sitting in what they considered a "high" office. They were more comfortable with Panday, and did (and continued to do) everything to keep him Leader of the Opposition. Indeed, Williams admitted in the House that he had held late-night meetings with Panday at the Prime Minister's residence. Once he had even quipped to Panday: "Tell them you drink only the best Scotch when you come to my home!"
Clarke will no doubt say that during that episode he exercised his discretion in accordance with the Constitution. One cannot challenge that, just as one cannot take the President to court. But the President's "judgment" can run contrary to popular opinion or to the views of top legal luminaries. Which is what makes for an interesting situation over the next few days or weeks. Terms like "commanding support", and, of course, "where there is an occasion for the appointment of a Prime Minister" (Section 76 ((1)) of the Constitution) can be subject to unusual interpretations. And those who once enjoyed the fruits of such legal elasticity 23 years ago may now find them not just bitter, but wholly unpalatable.
Copyright © Raffique Shah