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Lawyers by a landslide

By Terry Joseph
December 13, 2000

WINNING an election in these times is proving to be much more complex a determination, than merely establishing which political candidate in a given constituency secures the largest number of votes, or what party was most successful overall.

And in the tradition of following the US flavour of the week, Monday's general election results are heading for court, with lawyers set to enjoy the spoils from a series of suits and counter-suits.

Astute media management will also come in for a piece of the pie, if we properly mimic the American position of bringing blow-by-blow accounts of developments in the courts, with panels of experts analysing outcomes at every sequence.

Allegations of voter-padding in the five marginal constituencies and resulting police action, coupled with the fact that all of the affected seats were won by the United National Congress (UNC), will likely make those court matters all the more interesting. Among the accused, the wise will take counsel.

Police have already indicated that the arrests did not end with the election. They expect to continue investigations, which could lead to the arrest and interrogation of several other people. One assumes that they, too, will make it to court and hire lawyers to represent them there.

The nomination day capers, in which Winston Peters (aka calypsonian Gypsy) and Bill Chaitan are accused of making false declarations, also harbours potential for expensive litigation. Peters and Chaitan, both of whom held dual citizenship at the time of signing their nomination papers, said by their signatures that they had no other sovereign allegiance but to Trinidad and Tobago.

The People's National Movement (PNM) is determined to see that matter through to finality, as a favourable result could offer the party options including a possible increase in the number of seats it won on Monday. The PNM lawyers will have to dig deep on this one, with commensurate gains accruing to the legal fraternity.

Not to be outdone, the UNC has given notice of its intention to contest the validity of nomination papers signed by PNM candidates, including that party's political leader, Patrick Manning. They are claiming that Manning and others listed their occupations as Member of Parliament, at a time when the House of Representatives had been dissolved.

To the man in the street, the case appears simple. When the lawyers get a hold of it, that concept is sure to be shattered, as the wig and gown group will research the problem to death and come up with precedents and loopholes to counter each other's arguments; all for agreed fees.

Essentially, the UNC is saying that Manning and the others could not have been members of a parliament that had been previously prorogued, ergo, ergo, those declarations were equally false. Of course, the place to test such opinions is in court.

Meanwhile, there are those who maintain that even if Manning had listed his occupation as politician, that, too, could be the subject of some contentions, albeit from members of his own party.

However slim, these contests hold some promise for the political parties who seem intent on pursuing legal action. If people are found to have affixed their signatures to false declarations, the election of such candidates can be declared null and void, leading to a by-election.

Which is where the whole series of court hearings seem ridiculous. If as happened, thousands of electors vote for a particular candidate and the court declares his/her victory null and void, exactly what is to be gained from holding another election? Will the people who voted for them in the first instance now shift allegiance because the candidate signed a document with information proven incorrect?

What it holds for the winning side is an easier passage of bills requiring special majorities, if victory in the courts will enhance numbers in the House of Representatives. As it stands, not even the victorious UNC is in a position to tamper with legislation that requires a two-thirds or three-quarters majority, given only 19 of 36 seats at that level of government.

So the verbal and legal gymnastics will soon begin. And like the American people, we who already attempted to establish our preferences through the agreed and civilised system, will soon be reduced to the level of mere spectators to the power play; while our taxes go toward the refereeing of the battle.

As a relatively young nation, it may be the wise thing to pursue these matters to proper closure and by so doing eliminate any possibility of such tangles occurring in the future. After all, the US has been a sovereign nation for 224 years and still George W Bush and Al Gore are locking horns over who should really be president.

But it seems just a tad unfair that, for the hundreds of thousand who went out to vote, just a few people dressed in black and white could alter the voice of the people which, they would have us believe, is the voice of God.

Perhaps we should just be mature enough to recognise that it is the lawyers who have won this election and by a landslide.

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