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Still awaiting constitutional reform
On Monday, citizens of the Bahamas, voting in a referendum, overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to legalise gambling.
It was not the first time a referendum had been held in that Caribbean nation—there was a multiple referendum on five issues in early 2002; the majority voted against all the proposed measures.
While voters in the Bahamas are able to exercise that democratic right, here in T&T the ruling People’s Partnership has been mostly silent on its 2010 manifesto promise that “as a matter of urgency” it would engage the population in consultations for constitutional reform.
The PP’s election manifesto stated: “International treaties of major importance, in particular those affecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of T&T, will be subject to a popular referendum.”
Later in the same document, there was another promise of “mechanisms for a referendum process.”
However, almost three years later, that promise remains unfulfilled. The ruling coalition has been silent on the issue since last May, when it was a point of contention between the major coalition partners—the United National Congress (UNC) and the Congress of the People (COP).
That was when COP leader Prakash Ramadhar called for a referendum on a proposal to abolish criminal appeals to the Privy Council and replace it with the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
Ramadhar’s suggestion was quickly shot down by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who said in a statement: “It was never a formal stated policy nor agreed platform of the PP that a referendum be held prior to a decision on the CCJ, so no issue arises.”
The Prime Minister also pointed out that T&T’s Constitution and laws “make no provision for such a measure, which would in itself require a constitutional amendment that can facilitate the holding of a referendum.”
That raises the question: has the PP shifted its position on the referendum issue? Is it that the ruling coalition is no longer interested in introducing a process which will offer a direct vote to the entire electorate on matters of national or constitutional importance?
A referendum is one of the best forms of “direct democracy,” as it enables voters to focus and to express their views unambiguously, simply and directly on one important national issue. It is usually preceded by debate where the electorate can hear arguments for and against, so it is a good way to mobilise consent on contentious issues.
A referendum can also be a powerful check on the power of elected governments, so there might be reluctance in some quarters to introduce the measure, particularly at this time in T&T’s political development with so many potentially volatile developments taking centre stage.
In the current scenario, it seems highly unlikely that this election promise will be kept.
Hopefully, other PP election promises—such as the right of recall for non-performing parliamentary representatives, fixed election dates for national and local elections and limiting the Prime Minister to two successive terms as head of government— will see the light of day sometime soon.
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