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Recouping on runoffs

Published: 
Saturday, August 30, 2014

The sun was indeed shining yesterday after Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on Thursday night quoted commentator Ralph Maraj’s view that the “sun will still shine” if the Government’s constitution reform bill was passed. Persad-Bissessar utilised the quote by former PNM opponent, Maraj, to conclude debate on the bill in the Senate following which, the People’s Partnership (PP) administration’s most contentious piece of legislation was passed with three Independent senators’ support.

Now that that historic debate is concluded, the various implications—and corresponding repercussions—will begin unfolding in the political mix. And mix is what the bill, particularly the amended runoff poll aspect, will likely trigger. 

Independent Senator Dhanayshar Mahabir’s amendment concerning third-place finishers, gave the Government a much-needed lifeline on the thorny issue of the bill’s perceived threat to third parties and the consequent impact on the PP’s image. But it remains to be seen if the Government will improve on its dialogue and communication on the amended legislation—after initial lax handling—before amendments return to the Lower House.

In less than a year, the PP—in whatever shape it faces the polls—will be told by the voting public if the Prime Minister was right in trusting “the people” in proceeding with the legislation, in the face of accusations of lack of specific information on the runoff, and in an environment where one of the Government’s main challenges concerns lack of trust by some of the people.

After three days of debate in which several Independents braved a gauntlet of abuse outside the Parliament from Opposition supporters—a clearly orchestrated show—three-quarters of the Independent senators vetoed the bill. Clear indictment on their part that the end didn’t justify the means. Some Independent positions were so stringent, the PM in her final reply, was clearly irked.

However, the Independent bench demonstrated it was exactly as its name denotes, with the mixed support for and against the bill and the moves by Mahabir, Rolph Balgobin and David Small to strike out and attempt to work with the issue on the table and refine it to a slightly more equitable formula. Time will tell if it indeed is.

Term limits for the Prime Minister will mean Persad-Bissessar will, unlike Dr Eric Williams and Patrick Manning, never have multiple terms if the PP survives general elections. The PNM may suffer no such fate since it intends to repeal the bill if it wins in 2015. Provision for recall of an MP at half-term mark will ensure—at least for this election—parties, now embarking on candidate selection, will have to examine nominees much deeper and those offering themselves will have to ensure they can “cut it.”

The amended runoff poll plan, which may be perceived as a sop to the third-party elimination dilemma, may improve third finishers’ chances (as opposed to none in the original forced-choice scenario) though it won’t necessarily outlaw the political horse-trading that was expected with the original bill. But the landscape dictates that would have occurred with or without the bill.

The PNM whose objections to the bill were reinforced via a seventh contribution—in the surprise move of Senator Fitzgerald Hinds substituting for Camille Robinson-Regis—has already telegraphed its next prong of attack on the bill. 

This involves concerns that the amended runoff plan (involving 25 per cent of the votes for third finishers) would negate the foundation of the runoff plan (that candidates must receive 50 per cent of the votes) and this would return to a situation of minority MPs. One PNM view also insinuated Mahabir’s amendment gave voice to a suggestion of the PM. 

As much as the PP has to regain public trust on various fronts, the PNM will also have to recoup, after demonstrations outside the Parliament involving supporters have clouded the party’s image. 

Persad-Bissessar, who pegged her political stocks on the legislation, has made her mark piloting the bill successfully so far. It remains to unfold whether in making history in effecting electoral reform if it will fly, or if her ground-breaking move will put her administration into political history books via less distinguished circumstances.