October 21, 2001
By Raffique Shah
SO, the 580,000 or so battle-weary but bacchanal-ready souls who waged war in the "Mother of All Elections" less than one year ago, are back in the battlefield, presumably gearing themselves for the "Grandmother of All Elections", come December 10.
Given our rapid descent into the political netherworld of governments sitting on razor-thin majorities, hence being forced into calling elections-by-defections, I can see us heading down the Italy-road of institutionalised instability, with the "Ancestor of All Elections", meaning all out war, being the final, bloody arbiter. This dismal prospect will be the penalty we'll pay for failing to recognise the inherent weaknesses of our electoral system and Constitution, and the fact that 40 years after independence we do not have the will to throw these colonial anachronisms into the Gulf of Paria.
For those who are caught up in the frenzy of the battle for power and who fail to see the trees from the wood, let me explain. In post-war Italy, by 1981, Arnaldo Forlani, the country's 40th Premier since 1947, was forced to resign over a scandal that many high-ranking members of the ruling Christian Democrats belonged to a secret Masonic lodge. As an aside, if, in this country, governments, the corporate world and institutions like the judiciary and the police (to name just two) were judged by what "lodge" they belonged to, the entire state apparatus would crumble in shambles. The more important point, though, is that in Italy, where the electorate is divided by ideological schisms (the communists alone are split into three bitterly divided factions), and not by race, premiers and presidents are changed by the phases of the moon.
What do we hope to achieve by yet another general election? Basdeo Panday and his UNC won 19 constituencies one year ago, allowing them to form the government. Let us forget the widespread allegations (and arrests made) of "voter padding" and other electoral irregularities. If that election were totally free and fair, the PNM might have won-but by a similar majority. Or, as well, the UNC might have gained the same number of seats it did. Whoever won, one could sense that there was a political accident waiting to happen. And it did when the "Three Musketeers" walked out of the Panday Cabinet. But the way the Constitution is structured, framed as it was by our best colonial minds, it allows for "winner take all", even if the victory is by one vote or one seat.
The Constitution also makes provisions for a latter-day Governor in the form a Prime Minister, a point Lloyd Best has laboured on for decades. We have ignored this dangerous de facto position only because thus far we have not had a Prime Minister who was inclined to absolute, malevolent dictatorship. Eric Williams was a mere dictator, and Panday a sawdust Caesar, hence our fortune. The Prime Minsiter's powers are vast. Once he is safely ensconced in office, he can ride roughshod over his entire Cabinet, especially if its members are mice, not men and women who can stand up for what's right and speak out against what's wrong.
When, therefore, Panday lost his majority in the House of Representatives a few weeks ago, and it was clear that Patrick Manning now commanded 19 MPs in the 36-seat Chamber, President Arthur Robinson could not act. The Constitution once more prohibited him from sparing the country a return to the polls, from doing what appeared to be the correct thing in the circumstances. It was the Constitution, too, that forced the President to comply with Panday's convoluted idea of democracy by having the former name losing candidates as senators, and later ministers, allowing them to lord it over those who had defeated them in the election. The few people who argued that the Constitution was not cast in stone, that it was subject to liberal interpretations, were deemed dunces by a battery of attorneys.
So what was their solution? Return to the polls! Why? To "allow the voice of the people prevail". And, bear in mind, infidels, the voice of the people is the voice of God, no less. The same people whose German equivalent, in the millions, cheered Hitler all the way to the Reichstag in 1933, and to global destruction in the ensuing 12 years. Interestingly, Hitler came to power based on "legality" of the despised Weimar Constitution. We have seen such constitutional anomalies replicated in many countries, before and after Hitler.
Another point: can we truly expect the EBC to produce a reasonably accurate list of electors before December 10? I think not. Defective lists of electors did not surface yesterday: they have been around for as long we have had elections. What is disturbing is that in this "information age" the EBC cannot produce a proper database of electors, something that any computer literate person can do once he is given the resources. And contrary to assurances from Messrs Oswald Wilson and Raoul John, I have heard of enough irregularities, especially about people who have illegally transferred themselves to the marginal constituencies, to convince me that free and fair elections are impossible at this stage.
That notwithstanding, what do they hope to achieve through another general election? The UNC or whatever party Panday goes to the poll with, hopes that the split will not hurt it much, and that it will emerge from the election with at least the same 19 seats, maybe more. That's a daunting prospect, given the fallout from the split. Ramesh and his section of the UNC cannot hope to win the election. The best they could possibly do is grab a few seats from Panday, or to put a fatal dent in his support base. Which is where the PNM is coming from: Manning must hope that the split in the UNC would so damage the party, he would run through the centre and gain 19-plus seats that will allow him to form the government.
In the end, though, except for the prospect of ridding ourselves of an arrogant and corrupt government, we will have made no further progress. If the UNC or the PNM cannot win more than 75 per cent of the votes cast, or, better still, spur 75 per cent of the electorate to vote, we could find ourselves back to square one in another year. With the bulk of the electorate alienated (opposition supporters and those who did not vote), instability will continue. We shall not find peace, harmony and accountable governance for as long we remain trapped in systems that run counter to the very democracy they purport to promote.
Copyright © Raffique Shah