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No more minority MPs

Kamla wants sweeping constitutional changes...
Published: 
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal review a document during yesterday’s opening of the fifth session of Parliament. Photo: Shirley Bahadur

Government next week will debate legislation in Parliament to provide for a runoff poll in elections so that MPs can only take their seats in the Lower House if they obtain more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in their constituency. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced this planned legislation, which only requires a simple majority vote for passage,during yesterday’s opening of the first and last session of the current tenth Parliament. The session is the final one leading up to a general election, nine months off.

On the proposal to ensure all MPs are elected on a majority, the PM said: “This measure reaffirms democracy and ensures the balance of power is always tipped in favour of the people, not the government. “Over the years, we have seen so many candidates get elected to this House on the basis of winning less than 50 per cent of the votes cast.

“It would be unfair to future candidates who will be elected and who will now come under the revised constitutional provisions for being recalled by their constituents, that they should start their term of office as MPs on the basis of being minority winners. “That will only serve to strengthen any persons who may wish to use the revised recall process for ulterior motives.” She added: “It is necessary to protect against this by having all MPs elected on a majority basis.”

Persad-Bissessar also said legislation for a two-term limit for the Prime Minister, a right of recall of non-performing MPs and fixed dates for elections were coming soon. She said the moves were to ensure the People’s Partnership administration kept more of its 2010 manifesto promises Citing background work on the issue by the Constitution Commission, she said the bill to be laid was based on the recommendations and amendments to the Constitution set forth in the commission’s report and post-script report.

She said: “A Constitution Amendment Bill 2014 is to be introduced today, which will propose a term limit for the office of the Prime Minister, a recall provision and a runoff poll in elections for the House of Representatives. These measures require only a simple majority. “Further, I will in the near future, lay a bill to fix the dates of Parliaments so the dates for general elections will be known. Such a bill will require a special majority.” 

On the second ballot runoff proposal, she said while Parliament was vested with the authority to provide for the manner by which MPs were to be elected, “I wish to change the way we elect our members to strengthen our democracy in a way that makes the power of the people supreme.” Persad-Bissessar added: “This means that where, on a first poll at an election that is not achieved, a second poll will within 15 days be held between the top two candidates. 

“This will place greater emphasis on the quality of the candidates selected, as the question in the runoff will be, ‘Which of these two candidates will better serve me and my constituency?’” “In such a system,” the PM argued, “the voices of the minority would be respected even as effect is given to the will of the majority and every single vote would matter and count, as the possibility of voting a second time will breathe new life and meaning into the democratic process.”

In recent elections some MPs have won by slim margins. Persad-Bissessar added that the runoff is often viewed as a corollary of the right of recall, as an MP who was elected with less than 50 per cent of the votes cast was obviously immediately vulnerable to a recall. Such polls, she said, were “widely used in countries with substantial democratic traditions, including France, Switzerland, Argentina, Venezuela, the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea. 

Persad-Bissessar said Government was also seeking to expand the existing right of recall in the Constitution. She said it would create the ability to recall individual MPs after three years from the date of election. She added: “The right of recall is a term used to describe a process whereby the electorate can petition to trigger a vote between scheduled elections on the suitability of an existing elected representative to continue in office. 

“This forms part of the systems of government at different levels in several countries, including Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Philippines and Venezuela. “Section 49 A, which is a right of recall, is only within the hands of the leader of a party. It was exercised in the case of St  Joseph recently. “What we’re seeking to do is to expand that right of recall to place the power in the hands of the people and the people of the country will be the ones to trigger recall of an MP.

“The right of recall, Mr Speaker, doesn’t yet exist at Westminster and so this is a very bold step. “It may well be that  T&T may lead the way for Westminster because we would be the first Westminster-style democracy that will be adopting the right of recall. 
“In the Queen’s speech (on) June 4, 2014, she stated that her government will introduce legislation on the recall of MPs. So we shall be the first of the 52 Commonwealth countries.”