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Henry, Ghany lead public debate on constitutional change

Published: 
Monday, August 18, 2014
Debating constitutional reform in T&T
Screenshot from an explainer video by Nigel Henry, lead analyst of Solution By Simulation.

The proposed runoff system is "more democratic" and will do no harm to voters who supported a candidate that failed to win the first round of elections. If anything, the proposed system gives those voters more options than they now have.

This was the position put forward by Nigel Henry, chief analyst of Solution By Simulation, as he added his voice to public debate over the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014, at a forum hosted by the Constitutional Affairs and Parliamentary Studies Unit (CAPSU) of the Department of Political Science at the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine.

Voters who support neither the United National Congress (UNC) nor the People's National Movement (PNM) but who support a third party, such as the Congress of the People (COP) or the Independent Liberal Party (ILP), will have the option in the proposed system to vote for the "lesser of two evils" or to choose not to vote again, Henry said. In the current First-Past-the-Post system, third party supporters' only option is to accept the result at the end of the first round.

According to Henry, under the proposed system, more people have the opportunity to be happy with the result than under the current system.

"Result A can be called more democratic than Result B if more people are happy under Result A compared to Result B," he said. "I argue that given that statistical definition of democracy, the two-round system is a more democratic system."

Speaking to the Guardian in a post-event interview, Henry said that if the legislation is enacted, it is likely to have a tangible impact on voter behaviour, as more people are likely to vote in favour of a third party, once they understand that a vote against one of the two major parties could now have a more meaningful impact on the eventual outcome of the election.

"You can translate third party votes into third party seats," he said.

Henry was among a five-member panel trading perspectives on the merits of introducing a second round of runoff votes into the Parliamentary electoral system. 

Another panellist, Samraj Harripaul, S.C., chair of the Law Reform Commission, agreed with Henry that introducing a second round of voting would have a substantial impact on voters' behaviour. Harripaul said that, from his research, voter turnout was equal to or higher than first-round voting in "95 per cent" of the runoff elections around the world.

Speaking before Henry, Dr Hamid Ghany, coordinator of CAPSU, presented a compilation of elections results data from previous Parliamentary elections, and identified all the constituencies in which there would have been runoff elections, and the candidates/parties who would have been involved.  
 
"In 2007, 1991 and 1981, there would have been runoffs in the double digits."
 
Ghany's data showed that a high number of runoffs took place in election years in which there was a strong third party: ten in 1981, eleven in 1991 and fourteen in 2007. He went further to identify the specific constituencies and candidates who would have been involved in runoff elections. The data showed that third party candidates would not have been involved in the majority of the runoffs.
 
Dr. Bishnu Ragoonath, Head, Department of Political Science, added a historical perspective, outlining the history of constitutional reform in T&T.
 
Dr. Olabisi Kuboni, chair of the Constitution Reform Forum (CRF), like at least two members of the audience who volunteered their own perspectives in the open session, took issue with the lack of consultation in the process by which Bill had been devised.

"The CRF is saying that the debate in the Bill must be stopped. It must not become law," said Kuboni. 

"The runoff system is better for majority rule but the question we have to ask is majority rule for whom."

Kuboni said the runoff system will only perpetuate entrenched racial divides in T&T society.

Moderated by political analyst Mookesh Basdeo, the forum, which was held at the Management Lecture Theatre of the UWI Faculty of Social Sciences, attracted about 60 participants.