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Prakash comfortable with runoff system

Published: 
Sunday, August 10, 2014
Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar

Congress of the People (COP) political leader and Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar says he is comfortable with the runoff system being proposed in the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014, due for debate in Parliament tomorrow. “The philosophy is solid and well thought through, and the split-vote that many feared was unfounded,” he said yesterday, during an interview with the Sunday Guardian. The runoff system triggered negative feedback from various quarters, including the Opposition.

In a letter to the media, Dr Merle Hodge, a member of the Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC), said the runoff proposal was not in the PP’s manifesto or in constitutional reform consultations around T&T or in the commission’s report. She disassociated herself from the proposal. Meanwhile, Ramadhar, who headed the CRC, said it was a good thing which would serve to strengthen democracy and allow for the majority of people to choose the winner in a constituency or even in government.

He said, “If a certain party does not win, the runoff gives the party an opportunity to parlay with either of the two parties to secure the 51 per cent majority which enhances the options for both voter and party. “It is an improvement on the situation where the winner takes it all and you have no political space for those who do not win. “What it does also allow are interest groups to organise themselves into political parties, while under the present circumstances they have no hope of influencing the politics.” 

According to Ramadhar, the political parties engaged in runoffs will now have reason to involve smaller parties or interest groups in the process if they wanted to firm up their chances of success in the runoffs. The interest groups, he said, could now participate because they would gather votes and if there was a runoff, those votes would be necessary to win, especially in marginal seats. Ramadhar said the consultations were extensive and the party’s manifesto promised that the voices of the people should be heard on the Constitution.

He said as a result of the consultation, the commission was asked to bring a report to the population. Because of the party’s manifesto promise, the members took the position that they would start the ball rolling for constitutional reform by putting the bill forward. 

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on Monday announced the proposed legislation, to be debated in Parliament tomorrow, concerning two-term limits for prime ministers, right of recall for MPs, and the runoff poll system to apply where candidates received less than 50 per cent of votes cast. Ramadhar said it was only the start and that there was more to come in the constitutional reform process.

He said he hoped that over time public pressure could be brought on the PNM to support these very fundamental constitutional amendments such as proportional representation which the entire country viewed with great interest in the past.

Ramadhar denied that the runoff system was implemented to serve the interests of the PP and keep them in power longer. He dismissed this, saying “the very identical arguments which the party raised for proportional representation (the first time the party had electoral reform in local government) were now being raised by the same people.” 

When asked why proportional representation was allowed in the recently concluded local government elections and not in this new legislation, he replied that the party did not have the majority in Parliament, that it required three quarters of the vote and the Opposition had already indicated they were not going to support it. On claims by attorney Douglas Mendes that there are costs and dangers in the runoff system, Ramadhar said the issue at hand was what cost do you put on democracy. 

He said all elections had a cost but there was a greater cost to the society when the minority won, the majority lost and were left in pain, thus dividing the country. Concerning the COP Cabinet members’ concern over the runoff system, Ramadhar said the issue was what was best for the nation and a lot of issues that needed airing would consequently be brought into the open. 

Ramadhar said it was a matter for the Prime Minister to decide if the bill should be held back for public consultation before it reached the final stages of Parliament. The COP high ranking members are expected to meet today at Flagship House to discuss whether they will be supporting the changes to the Constitution.