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Kamla’s constitutional muddle

Sunday, August 24, 2014

“Since more than 51 per cent of votes is (sic) required to elect a majority, an MP would require more than the ethnic vote to win the seat,” said PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar. She said: “If every single Indian voted for the UNC or the Partnership they could never get the majority required.” She said no one ethnic group on its own can win the required more than 50 per cent of the vote.’’
—Express report on PM’s address to UNC supporters at Gasparillo Secondary School.

The Prime Minister has at last provided an objective for her decision to insert a runoff provision in the Constitution that aims at ensuring each Member of Parliament is elected by a minimum of 50 per cent. It is part of the Persad-Bissessar constitutional model aimed at slowly replacing the Westminster system on which our Constitution is based.

The Prime Minister must be aware that the ethnic breakdown per constituency is not the same as the national statistics she quoted. In some constituencies, for example, Siparia and Arouca/Maloney, over 60 per cent of the electorate comprise one ethnic group. It is the same in Naparima and Chaguanas West, as in Laventille East and West and Oropouche East and West. In those constituencies, an MP can simply win with over 50 per cent by attracting the vote of a single ethnic group.

The Prime Minister’s misinterpretation of such national statistics to make her case for the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 does no credit to her argument and, instead, raises further questions on the decision to foist this change, without consultation, on the electorate. How will we be better off if our MP is elected by 50 per cent, rather than 49 per cent? What increased performance can be expected from such a “strengthened” mandate?

Even more remarkably, the statement on increasing ethnic harmony came just two months after Persad-Bissessar was on the stage, nodding in affirmation, when the leader of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha was making his statement that the alleged Afro-TT dominated public service was hindering the efficiency of the Indo-TT dominated Government.

The Prime Minister’s greatest error is falling for the simplistic analysis of the local political commentators and academics who continue to peddle the beaten theory, unsupported by any rigorous academic study, that T&T, as a multi-ethnic country, is not suited to the Westminster-style democracy. Britain, from whom we inherited our version of Westminster, is also a multi-ethnic state, comprising Scots, Welsh, Northern-Irish and English, whose votes correspond strongly to their ethnic ties.

Even the British High Commissioner to T&T, borrowing on the received academic wisdom, has pointed to the dangers of ethnic voting in T&T, without recognising his country has survived for decades with the same voting patterns. 

According to a study conducted by the UK’s Electoral Reform Society after the 2010 general elections: “A common factor in British elections is that the majority of seats can be described as ‘safe’ for one party or another. The number that are seriously contested between the parties, and thereby decide who is in government, number around 200 out of 650 at a rather generous estimate.”

The “generous” estimate of the marginal seats amounts to 30 per cent of the seats in the British parliament. This compares favourably with the analysis of Dr Hamid Ghany ahead of the 2010 elections that found 14 marginal seats in T&T, which account for 34 per cent of the seats in our House of Representatives.

Voting patterns in Britain consistently show the north tends to favour Labour and the south favours the Conservative Party. According to the BBC: “In 2001, the southern part of England voted 56.3 per cent for the Conservative Party, whilst the north of England, Scotland and Wales voted 82.4 per cent in favour of the Labour Party.”

In an April 2013 analysis on the regional divide, The Economist found: “The differences between them now go beyond economic circumstance—their cultural and political identities are ever more distinct. This represents a daunting but inescapable political challenge.” 

This mirrors the T&T situation with the PNM constituencies concentrated in the north and the UNC voters concentrated in Central and South. While we continue to use ethnicity to account for voting patterns, they could also be accounted for by geography and history.

We can also argue that the Westminster system has worked better in T&T than it has in the UK which has had to deal with extended and bloody periods of political instability, including the ongoing Irish claims for self-determination, and the UK is now in the midst of a political turmoil over Scottish desires for secession. To prove her point, Persad-Bissessar needs to show that replacing the Westminster model for the variants of Ramadhar’s borrowed Guyanese muddle will made us stronger as a nation.

Regardless of the constitutional changes, what the country yearns for is enlightened leadership able to consistently appeal across all ethnic groups. Our history has shown only one leader has been able to achieve this: under Dr Eric Williams, the PNM averaged 57.15 per cent of the vote across five terms. And he was able to do it without unilaterally drafting a constitution to suit his own party.


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