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Raffique Shah


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Playing with Fire

By Raffique Shah
August 10, 2014

By insisting on going ahead with certain constitutional amendments that many, if not most, citizens find objectionable in the extreme, the Government is mischievously playing with fire. Knowingly, the trio of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar are leading the charge of a dark brigade that could well see the society rent asunder by political strife than allow reason to prevail.

Why are they courting a societal implosion, the consequences of which are unimaginable?

The only reason I can think of is desperation to remain in power. There is a high probability that what remains of the People’s Partnership (PP) will lose power in free and fair elections, if they are held under the existing provisions in the Constitution. They were soundly beaten in four elections in 2013, and nothing has changed for the better since to suggest that they could stem the tide of discontent.

Therefore, if they can’t win by fair means, they will change the rules of the game, move the goal posts in ways that might give them some advantages, although I do not envisage even that happening.

The most objectionable of the changes they want to introduce is a provision that calls for "run-offs" between the two leading candidates in constituencies where the winner gets less than 50 per cent of the votes cast.

Note well that people are hardly objecting to the so-called "two-term limit" for a prime minister, or even the right to recall a non-performing member of Parliament, as complex as the process for the latter may be.

It is the voiding of the will of the electorate, because that’s what this "run-off" is about, that has sparked outrage. It is this undemocratic measure, which the trio are touting as the essence of democracy, that has galvanised people with backbone to stand up and say, "No way!"

I would like Kamla, Anand and Prakash to tell the population where, among countries that elect governments by popular vote, even on a proportional representation basis, does such mechanism exist. I know there are "run-offs" between the two leading presidential candidates in the main political parties in the USA and a few other countries.

In fact, in several countries where an executive president is elected directly by the people, such provision exists. But I do not know of one instance in which there are "run-offs" at the district or constituency level.

In India, the biggest demo­cracy in the world, where 300 million-odd electors voted recently over a month-long period to elect a government, no such provisions exist. Indeed, the new BJP government headed by Narendra Modi won 282 of 543 seats, polling a mere 31 per cent of votes cast. There were no riots by the 69 per cent who supported the Congress and other parties, only to see them lose the elections. Mr Modi is getting on with the business of governing the country quite nicely, even better, I should add, than others who in India’s past won by resounding majorities.

So, whence came this "run-off" mischief that the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) inserted, not in its final report, mark you, but in an addendum that the trio mysteriously "discovered" after the uproar erupted?

Prakash says, "This is what the people want!" What people, Praks? How many thousands appeared before the sittings the CRC held, or submitted memoranda to that effect? I’d be surprised in the CRC, in all its deliberations, interfaced with more than 1,000 citizens. Of that lot, maybe a handful mouthed something about "run-offs", but because it offers a ray of hope for the PP in the next elections, the provision has become the centrepiece of Government’s constitutional and electoral reform.

The trio tout the measure as the epitome of democracy, as people no longer being saddled with "minority MPs". Hey, we have always had minority MPs, in the sense that if votes cast for the winners in all constituencies are mea­sured as percentages of the respective numbers of electors, there will have been few, if any, who polled more than 50 per cent.

Worse, if "run-offs" are staged (heaven help us if ever that happens), what gua­rantees are there other than the winner winning more than 50 per cent of what­ever votes are cast, be it 28 per cent of the electorate that gave the PNM all 36 seats in the boycotted 1971 elections, or the average 54 to 60 per cent that voted in all other elections?

In almost every instance, the winners will enjoy the support of a minority of his or her constituents.

I have shown where and how this "run-off" provision they want to undemocratically impose on us is useless, how it has the potential to trigger mischief.

If the "dark brigade" char­ges ahead as they plan to, the imposition would be undemocratic because not all members of the PP will go along with this monstrosity, and if they do, it would be under duress.

Clearly, the way forward is for the PP to withdraw all constitutional changes and make them a 2015 election issue. Let 800,000 electors, not 26 MPs, decide if they want such provisions. That, Praks, is true democracy.

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