Trinidad & Tobago hits the election trail

Trinidad's Red House

 By Tony Fraser

Nine months before it keeps its scheduled rendezvous with an electorate which it has often antagonised with its politics, the People’s Partnership (PP) government in Trinidad and Tobago has changed the electoral system of voting and launched a TT$64.4bn (US$10bn) 2015 budget with goodies for those at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, the young, the old and the middle classes.
One of the three elements of the Constitutional Amendment Bill, passed in the House of Representatives and the Senate with a simple majority, requires that there be a run-off poll in constituencies in which the winner in the first-past-the-post system does not receive more than 51% of the votes cast in the original poll.
The measure also originally decreed that the run-off will only be between the first two parties.
However, it was subsequently amended in the Senate to allow a third party that receives 25% of the vote in the original poll and comes within 5% of the second-placed party to contest the run-off poll.
This element of the Bill and two other measures - the right of constituents to recall parliamentary representatives who are deemed to be underperforming three years after they were elected and a fixed two terms for a prime minister - came out of a government-appointed Constitution Reform Commission. 
Negative comment
While there has been general acceptance of the two-term limit for prime ministers and the right of recall, the run-off poll has attracted negative comment, even from government ministers.
Two ministers expressed extremely strong views about the process followed to propose the electoral measure and voted against the Bill in the House of Representatives.
As she did during 2012, when the ruling coalition PP government engaged and lost two by-elections, local government elections and Tobago elections during the year, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar put her political life on the line again as she took the unusual role of piloting the bill through the Senate.  
This time, though, the PM was able to secure the support of three independents to pass the legislation.
But there are political commentators who argue that passing the legislation is but a pyrrhic victory.
“It will backfire on the government as swing voters who determine the winner of elections will vote against the government at the appropriate time,” said political commentator Dr Winford James.
Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar argued that the run-off poll “is committed to respecting the voice of the minority whilst at the same time acknowledging the will of the majority, because in a democracy, it is the majority that would make the decisions and guide the way forward”.
She said that the bill would “place the power in the hands of the people” through the right to recall MPs and by giving the electorate a second vote through the run-off poll.
The run-off provision sparked widespread critical comment against the government. 
The core of the contention is that, while the other provisions were called for by members of the public in the consultations, the run-off poll was devised by the Reform Commission and placed in an addendum to the report without going before the public.
“It was never revealed to the people before Monday 4 August 2014, one week before it was to be debated in the parliament. It is therefore dishonest to claim that the people were consulted on this provision,” said one of the commissioners, retired university lecturer Dr Merle Hodge.
Dr Hodge raised her voice when attempts were made by members of the government to say that the run-off measure had been discussed in the consultations. 
UNC edge?
Political commentators in the press have said that the government believes that if there are run-offs in the marginal constituencies in which the ruling United National Congress and the opposition People’s National Movement are roughly balanced, the UNC has a better chance of winning such seats, which usually decide elections.  
The contention has also been made that the run-off was designed to marginalise third parties. 
“And the fact is, if anything has been a concoction so as to marginalise third parties, that is,” said former senior PP government minister Jack Warner in his contribution to the debate on the bill in the House of Representatives.  
“The Congress of the People (the second major party in the ruling PP coalition) is entirely opposed to a constitution for Trinidad and Tobago which does not reflect the collective will…of the people…and we take note that the working document does not even represent a consensus among the round table participants, invited by the government,” said Winston Dookeran, founder of the COP, senior minister and statesman of the coalition, as he voted against the bill.
The legislation was, however, passed in the Senate, with the government getting three of the nine independent senators to vote with it. 
Court challenges?
However, the opposition People’s National Movement (PNM), Mr Warner’s Independent Liberal Party (ILP) and former Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj have indicated their joint intention of taking the matter to court on the basis that the bill, because it so fundamentally changes the process of electing members of parliament and requires a special majority, rather than the simple majority achieved by the government in passing the bill.
Some groups are also calling on the president of the republic to refuse to enact the legislation.
However, President Anthony Carmona has not responded to any of the calls made on him.
Tackling corruption
Racked by political wrongdoing and corruption allegations almost from the first six months of coming into government in 2010, the PP has seen Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar remove and replace 18 of her ministers, while two others resigned their ministries and overall 11 ministers were directly fired.
Allegations of government corruption have followed the administration through a number of high-profile matters:
  • “The Reshmi Affair” in which the government appointed a telephone operator with a false resume to head the national intelligence agency;
  • The government was charged for passing the Section 34 legislation, allegedly to allow party financiers to be free of charges of corruption that spent more than 10 years in the court system without reaching a conclusion
  • The last minister who was asked to resign, Minister of Sport Anil Roberts, did so after tens of millions of dollars had been corruptly spent in a LifeSport programme in his ministry. 
An opinion poll conducted in February this year “finds significant disillusionment with the governance of the People’s Partnership, hurting the approval rating of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar,” stated the well known Nacta polling organisation
“In contrast, Dr Keith Rowley’s approval rating as opposition leader has been steadily increasing over the last three years, making him a serious challenger to replace Mrs Persad-Bissessar as PM whenever the next general election is held,” Nacta said. 
However, the polls have shown that Mrs Persad-Bissessar retains a measure of personal support.
The PP’s ups and downs
Undoubtedly, the government has had achievements in education and infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges. Unemployment has fallen to a low of 3.5%, foreign exchange reserves remain enough to purchase 12 months of imports and growth has returned to the economy (1.9%) in the last couple of years.  
However, the government has failed to reverse the decline in oil and gas production, while at the same time, there has been a 7% decline in the economy’s proven natural gas reserves. 
Notwithstanding falls in the murder rate, the government has not been able to prevent the deepening of the criminal culture, has not been able to diversify the economy and has refused to pass legislation for the Caribbean Court of Justice to replace the British Privy Council as its final court of appeal.
In the country’s ethnically divided society, there have been allegations that the government has been favouring its tribal base among Indo-Trinis; but that is a claim that is reversed when the Afro-Trini PNM is in office.
Looking to 2015
Elections are constitutionally due no later than August 2015.
Against this background, the government, in its last budget before the polls, is said to have come with an election budget of “goodies”. 
These include:
  • one-year grants for low income mothers having babies,
  • tax breaks to the young and old middle class,
  • a refusal for another year to reimpose property taxes
  • and once again declining IMF recommendations to begin reducing the TT $2bn subsidy on gasoline.
In addition to these problems and amid allegations of corruption, the five-party coalition has been reduced to two parties, the majority UNC and the minority COP.
It is in this context of a considerably weakened political position that Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar is trying to find and enact measures, electoral and economic, to assist the party in regaining some political momentum over the next nine to 12 months.
Undoubtedly the ruling coalition has lost much of the support it received from electors outside its tribal base.  
At the same time, traditional PNM supporters are signalling a return home.  
As it has taken root over the last three to four elections, it is the vote of the non-aligned, who voted in large numbers in 2010 to give the coalition a victory, that will count. 
Will this 20 to 25% of the electorate vote PNM in larger quantities than it votes for the Partnership? 
Related to the run-off poll, one view is that large numbers of PNM and non-PNM supporters will come out in large numbers to ensure the opposition is swept into power with large percentages.
But nine to 12 months is a lifetime in politics and there is a long road to travel to the general election.