Rowley wants population to ‘rise up’ against proposed constitutional changes

Trinidad & Tobago's Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley.

Trinidad & Tobago’s Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley.

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Aug 9, CMC – Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley is calling on nationals to “rise up” to protect democracy in Trinidad and Tobago as the government signaled its intention to go ahead with the debate on Monday to amend the Constitution to allow for “significant” changes in the traditional way of choosing a government.

In a television address last night (Friday), Rowley, the leader of the main opposition People’s National Movement (PNM), said that the proposed Constitutional Amendment Bill which will provide for a two-term limit for a prime minister as well as the power to recall legislators was a recipe for disaster.

He said the bill, which will also make provisions for a run-off in the event that a successful candidate at a general election failed to win 50 per cent of the votes, was also designed o keep a government in power, even if it lost the general election.

“I would like to invite every citizen to rise up and join us with vigilance and conviction in protecting, again, our democracy.

“I invite every citizen, every group, every association, regardless of your age, gender, race, religion, political affiliation, geographic location or social standing to join us and band together in seeking to stop this open attack on your democratic rights and freedoms to select and vote for a party of your choosing and not be forced or fettered by law to vote for one that is not of your primary choosing.

“I invite you to reject the chaos and confusion that the runoff law would cause in our democracy, which could see more than a dozen “run-offs” being conducted after the first poll of a general election,” Rowley told television viewers.

“But most of all I invite you to look at the governments abusive track record of deception and insincerity and ultimately examine the insidious intent of this ‘runoff’ law and reject it as the panicked and desperate actions of a party trying to hold on to power at the cost of removing your democratic freedom of choice.”

But Attorney General Anand Ramlogan told reporters that the debate will go ahead as planned on Monday and Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar, who chaired the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC), said, “I do not really see any tremendous arguments for us, preventing Constitution reform from going forward.

“The train is now leaving the station on constitutional reform, it is in movement, it is in motion and we will pass this … this Government is quite serious about its promise for constitutional reform,” he told the Trinidad Express newspaper today (Saturday).

Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, who will table the bill in Parliament on Monday, urged citizens to support the initiative, saying it did not come “like a thief in the night”, but was part of her government’s manifesto.

“Be not afraid,” she added as her government yesterday released the CRC report and the addendum.

But at least two members of the CRC have called on the government to halt the debate and allow for more public discussion on the issue.

Former University of the West Indies (UWI) lecturer Dr Merle Hodge and businessman Carlos Dillon, have said that as a consequence of the furore surrounding the bill,  it would make good sense to revisit the timing of the debate.

Dillon, who said he has taken responsibility for the report said that there were three main concerns of the citizenry during the period of consultations namely, the right of recall of a Member of Parliament, the methodology to be used for putting proportional representation into effect and  the timing of bringing the bill to Parliament.

“The right of recall of a Member of Parliament and the question of Proportional Representation were indeed raised by the public during the consultations and are reflected in the report. However, the methods of putting 1 and 2 above into effect were not part of the public discussion, for acceptance/rejection,” stated Dillon.

Hodge described the run-off ballot as “anti-democratic” and a contradiction of “the principle of proportional representation”.

She said the right of recall “did not crop up belatedly in the follow-up consul­tations as claimed by the Attorney General” during his appearance on a television programme on Thursday.

“Recall was there from the beginning. It featured in the PP’s (People’s Partnership) manifesto (Page 15), in the main consultations around the country, and in the CRC’s report (Page 23),” she said, noting the run-off proposal did not feature in the People’s Partnership mani­festo, in the main consultations around the country or in the CRC’s report.

Hodge said the run-off ballot was a mechanism and not a principle, and the CRC agreed, in the first instance, to a set of principles.

“Not every detail regarding how to implement these principles would have been worked out by members of the CRC, nor would these details have come necessarily from members of the public who participated in the consultation process.

But Ramlogan Friday questioned the “flip-flopping” position of Hodge, saying  she is now “appearing to resile herself from her position with her co-Commissioners.

“One would expect and hope that before they (members) put their signature to that document there would have been mature reflection, careful deliberation, and genuine and meaningful discussions among these persons who were appointed and handsomely paid to serve on that commission,” he said.

“I find it strange because Miss Hodge signed the recommendation, it is her recommendation to the Government … so, I don’t know why this flip-flopping all of a sudden,” he added.

Former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj said that the run-off proposal is a method that could be used by the government to ensure victory in the next general election.

“This a gimmick, a device to do fraud to steal from the people of Trinidad and Tobago the results of the elections … If you start to steal elections in Trinidad and Tobago, well then we have no democracy.

“The only reasonable inference and implication to be drawn is that the government knows that on the basis of the present rules and laws, it cannot win the next general elections. It knows that the population and its supporters have lost confidence and trust in them as a government,” said Maharaj, adding that with the run-off voting, there is the risk that the business community would lose its investments and the economy would be irreparable damaged or destroyed.

In his broadcast, Rowley said citizens should not be distracted by the “superficial attraction of restricting a Prime Minister to two terms, and having a right of recall of members of the House of Representatives”.

“These proposals are solutions looking for problems or flawed answers looking for questions. Platitudes that when considered would not improve the operations of government or deepening of our democracy. These proposals will not significantly improve quality of your life or the democracy which we enjoy.”

He said that the proposed legislature also contains “perhaps the most dangerous and potentially destabilizing legislative provision since the inception of our democracy, which has placed the orderly transfer of power and the efficient formation of the new government under serious threat.

“Under this proposed law, the government could lose at the polls, but there are a number of supplementary or run off polls to be conducted, or quite possibly just one. According to the amendment, the incumbent government which is defeated, or on its way out, remains in office for at least fifteen (15) more days. I say at least because one needs to consider the likelihood of legal challenges.

“ It therefore creates the distinct possibility that a government which has lost an election remains in control, if even for only 1  more days,” Rowley said, recalling many “infractions” committed by the government since it came to power in 2010.

“This 15-day window is the proverbial recipe for chaos and is a suspension of our freedom to select and have a government promptly formed by our own determination,” he added.

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