Trinidad's deepening political crisis
October 15, 2001
The constitutional crisis that has been looming in fellow CARICOM state, Trinidad and Tobago, ever since Prime Minister Basdeo Panday lost his majority in the elected House of Representatives on October 1 has now deepened. Unable to pass legislation, the Prime Minister advised President Robinson to dissolve parliament but Robinson has told the Prime Minister to hold his hand. This has raised all kinds of legal questions on whether a head of state, functioning under a Westminster system of parliamentary government, can refuse the request of the head of government (the Prime Minister) to dissolve parliament.
In today's Guyana, the President has absolute power to dissolve parliament and call an election. But prior to the fraudulent referendum in 1978 that led to the imposition of the Burnham constitution that created an omnipotent President, Guyana followed the Trinidad model for the dissolution of parliament. The Governor General and the President (prior to 1980) always acquiesced to the advice of the Prime Minister or the Premier on election matters. That seems to be the pattern throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean.
Some constitutional experts say that Trinidad's President has no discretion on dissolving parliament but others say that the President can refuse the P.M's request. The latter argues that the constitution has given the President a degree of latitude in the dissolution of the house. They note that the constitution is a living document and must therefore be subject to a flexible interpretation especially during national crisis. And it appears that Trinidad is undergoing a crisis - the internecine warfare within the government as well as widespread corruption.
They also say that the President is on very firm ground when he emphasises the importance of confidence in the electoral process. They point out that after several pending election matters relating to the 2000 voting now before the court, Trinidad and Tobago absolutely needs to ensure that the next government has the confidence of the nation.
Panday has threatened to go to court to force the President to dissolve parliament and set December 10 as election day if the President does not act on his request. Panday wants election right away because he feels the momentum is on his side to retain all 19 seats his party won in last December elections. But the President has indicated that he has serious questions about the voters list. This is also the stated concern of the opposition PNM.
The President has indicated his willingness to allow the holding of an election with a proper list . Surely, constitutional lawyers who feel that Robinson must follow the advice of the Prime Minister would agree that Robinson must keep in mind the adequacy of the electoral list for the conduct of a free election. It would be foolhardy of the President to rush head-long into another election when so much about the last poll is still in serious contention.
There is no question that Panday, who has lost the moral right to govern, has done the right thing in requesting a dissolution of parliament and seeking a fresh mandate from the electorate. But the key question one needs to ask is if the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) will be ready to hold a free and fair election - which is of primary concern to Robinson.
If the President is not convinced that a proper list will be ready in time for a December poll, what can he do? Panday's government says the President has no choice but to act. But some legal experts say that the President can use his discretion or even prorogue parliament, an option Panday would not like. This could lead to serious social and political consequences.
Some legal experts say that the President can use the imminence of the decisions of the courts on pending election petitions to turn down Panday's request. They say that Robinson can insist he wants closure of the last election before a new election can be held. But this brings us back to the old issue of whether the President can replace the sitting P.M with someone else from the house? Prominent attorney, Robin Montano, a former member of the PNM, is adamant that such an action would be tantamount to a coup d'etat. But there are other lawyers who are anxious to interpret the Constitution in other ways.
In making a decision, Robinson must consider the social and political implications if the present government were to be removed from office and the consequences if the PNM and its followers were to be forced into returning to the polls with an electoral list about which they have serious reservations.
With Trinidad's crisis, the Commonwealth Caribbean is entering into uncharted waters as it pertains to changing Prime Ministers (without new elections) and dissolving parliaments.