In anticipation of a showdown both inside and outside of Parliament, police have boosted land, sea and air patrols as government and opposition forces are expected to gather at the Waterfront for the debate on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 this morning. Sources said supporters from United National Congress (UNC) strongholds are being mobilised to gather outside Parliament to show support for the bill.
Opposition People’s National Movement forces as well as social groups such as Fixin T&T and Advocates for Change, other political parties the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ), the Independent Liberal Party (ILP), are also planning to have an all night vigil outside parliament building while the debate is going on.
Off-duty law enforcement officers from Central Police, Traffic Branch, Besson Street and Port-of-Spain CID have been called out to duty in anticipation of the protests, sources said. In addition to the Court and Process Branch police officers who are assigned to Parliamentary duties, a team of Special Branch officers have also been assigned to today’s hearing.
“We expect to have plain clothes officers mingling with the crowds and we are also monitoring mobilisation from opposition and government constituencies,” a senior police officer said on the condition of anonymity, as he was not authorised to speak on today’s security plans. Another social group Democracy Watch, an organisation aligned to former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj as well was also last night discussing their intentions to join the vigil.
In defending his decision to protest outside parliament, Fixin T&T’s leader Kirk Waithe said the people of T&T must force the postponement of the debate. “This is the singular most dangerous attack on the people and constitution in the history of T&T. This is worse than all the other scandals of this government and previous governments combined because if this legislation is passed, an incumbent government that wins one seat in the general elections can retain power for an indefinite period of time,” Waithe said.
Saying “this is the beginning of the end of democracy if it is allowed to be debated,” Waithe called on the citizenry to join them in protest. “Be prepared to stay all night. We must unite to stop this,” Waithe said. Opposition leader Dr Keith Rowley also called on citizens to stand up against the attack on democracy.
“I want to invite every citizen to rise up and join us with vigilance and conviction in protecting our democracy. I invite every citizen, every group, every association, regardless of your age, your religion, gender, political affiliation, social standing or geographical location to join with us in stopping this open attack on our democratic rights and freedoms,” Rowley said in a televised address to the nation on Friday.
Saying the runoff ballot will cause confusion, Rowley accused government of attempting to pass laws that would enable them to stay in office long after the party has been defeated. “Look at the government’s track record of abuse, deception and insincerity. Government is under-estimating the intelligence of this country,” Rowley charged. The PNM has scheduled a public meeting at Bournes Road, St James on Tuesday night to further discuss the issue.
Meanwhile, MSJ leader David Abdulah said the people must take power into their hands. He said the government could not pass the bill if the Congress of the People (COP) and Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) parliamentarians withheld their support. Abdulah said the former attorney general Maharaj as well as former Oropouche West MP Mickela Panday will be speaking at a public education meeting on Wednesday night in San Fernando.
However, leader of government business Dr Roodal Moonilal said Rowley was inciting the population to protest. Accusing Rowley of being a “merchant of fear” Moonilal said the constitutional reform laws will bolster participatory governance. He said the current Westminster system of government did not cater for third parties but under the new reform, third parties will get a second chance of victory under the runoff ballot.
Education minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh also denied that the reform initiatives were an attack on democracy. “Let the debate go on and let the population be better informed,” Gopeesingh said. He also accused the Opposition of inciting political violence in T&T.
Since Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar introduced the bill in Parliament on August 4, which proposes fixed terms for the office of Prime Minister, right of recall and a runoff vote to eliminate minority MPs, there has been objection from a wide cross-section of society against the controversial runoff provision. Debate is expected to begin today from 10.30 am.