In a Commonwealth first, Trinidad and Tobago votes for two-term PM
Posted on Aug 13 2014 | IANS
By Paras Ramoutar, Port of Spain, Aug 13 : In a first for a Commonwealth country, Trinidad and Tobago (T and T) has voted that no prime minister can serve more than two consecutive terms.
The voting result came after the country's first first female Indo-Trinidadian Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, sought from all members of parliament a "conscience vote".
"I am releasing all MPs of the cabinet from the doctrine of collective responsibility on this matter," she said. This is the first time ever that any prime minister has allowed a conscience vote in parliament.
This was one of three proposals passed in the debate in the House of Representatives or lower house of parliament Tuesday.
The debate for the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 started Monday morning after which 23 MPs voted for, 14 against while one abstained.
Persad-Bissessar said that she was keeping her promise and that she would do so with no fear of what the electorate would do.
"These are promises we kept and we are keeping the promises because they make for better governance and place more power in the hands of the people," she said while pointing out that there were four official government reports proposing constitutional reforms through successive administrations from 1974 to 2010.
The prime minister defended term limits for her post, the right of recall and the 50 percent runoff procedure to enhance democracy and protect minority parties.
She said runoffs would have been possible in the years 1966 right up to 2010.
Persad-Bissessar assured the house that several other bills, including one to introduce referendums, would be brought.
She said that there would be legislations introducing proportional representation in the Senate, or upper house of parliament, and bolstering the office of the director of public prosecutions.
"More elections can never be dictatorial," she noted.
She also said that the present government's parliamentary term would end in June 2015, and general elections were due no later than September 2015.
Chairman of the Constitution Consultations Committee and Legal Affairs Minister, Prakash Ramadhar, said that though the opposition People's National Movement(PNM) was demonising the first effort at constitutional reform, the process has taken root and nobody could stop it.
Ramadhar said fixed term limits for prime ministers gave them a chance to leave a good legacy, and the right to recall an MP also gave the people the authority of choosing a representative between election dates.
"The runoff ballot was a very poor but necessary substitute for proportional representation," he said.
However, during the course of the session, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Dookeran, voted against the bill on the runoff procedure.
"The runoff mechanism directly contradicts the principle of proportional representation which is a central recommendation of the Constitution Reform Commission," he said.
"I am simply expressing the torment that went through me tonight as I listened to the debate and I understand where I myself had laid my entire political bucket down, how could I kick that bucket down," Dookeran added.
People of Indian origin make up around 44 percent of T and T's total population of 1.2 million.
(Paras Ramoutar can be contacted at email@example.com)