Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Political Feature: What if the THA election ends in a tie?

(This feature first appeared on JYOTI on January 5, 2013)
In 2001 Prime Minister Basdeo Panday found himself in a rather awkward political position. Just one year after winning a majority in the general election of 2000 a revolt by three of his MPs forced him to call fresh elections, since he had lost his majority in Parliament. 

The vote on Dec. 10, 2001 ended with Panday's UNC losing one seat and Patrick Manning's PNM winning an extra two to change the result of 2000 from 19 (UNC); 16 (PNM); 1 (NAR) to 18 (UNC) and 18 (PNM).

United National Congress279,00249.918-1
People's National Movement260,07546.518+2
National Team Unity14,2072.50New
National Alliance for Reconstruction5,8411.00-1
National Democratic Organisation500.00New
Invalid/blank votes2,818

Panday's response was to invite Manning to join him to form a government of national unity, which Manning promptly rejected. President Robinson then asked both men to meet and try to resolve the political impasse - a near impossible task. 

They met; they talked; they agreed. However it didn't settle the fundamental question of who would be Prime Minister. That is the task they handed to the president, saying they would respect his decision and abide by it.

Robinson ended the uncertainty on Christmas Eve by firing Panday and appointing Manning as Prime Minister, allowing Manning to govern for nine months without ever summoning Parliament.

Today the prospect of a tie in the national Parliament has disappeared with the addition of five new seats to make a House of Representatives comprising 41 members.

However, in Tobago there is a real possibility that there could be a tie in the House of Assembly election on January 21. When Chief Secretary Orville London dissolved the House last year his PNM had eight of the 12 seats; the Tobago Organisation of the People led by Ashworth Jack held the other four.

It's difficult to predict how the THA would look after January 21 but at least one informal Internet poll of more than 2,000 respondents is suggesting a tie, with each of the two main parties getting six seats. And one scientific poll on the ground conducted before the Dec. 30 launch of the TOP campaign was predicting a statistical deadheat.

The bottom line is that a tie is a very real possibility and if that happens there is no clear cut constitutional prescription to fix the problem. And in the case of Tobago, the president's only role is to administer the oath of office to the Assemblymen three days after an election or as soon as possible after that "as the President may consider practicable".

Section 7 of the THA Act states that the members of the Assembly "shall then elect a Presiding Officer (who may come from inside or outside of the House) and the President will then administer the oath of office to the Presiding Officer."

In a tie, that's where the trouble begins. Would the divided THA be able to agree on an "independent" presiding officer especially in such a politically polarised situation following an election? To do it requires consensus. And that won't be easy to reach.

Obviously in such a situation each of the two parties would be wary of who that person will be. And the reason is really simple. The presiding officer not only supervises the election, she/he can cast a vote to break a tie. So the problem is obvious.

It would seem that a tie on January 21 would frustrate the process of electing a Chief secretary or a Deputy Chief Secretary, which could lead to statutory breakdown because under section 13(1) of the THA Act "No person elected or appointed to the Assembly shall assume the duties of his office until he is administered the relevant oath of office." 

And no oath can be administered unless the 12 Assemblymen agree on a leader. In a tie there obviously would be at least two candidates. This means that to win a candidate must get at least one vote from the opposing party, which again would be highly unlikely.

If there continues to be a tie after a second ballot, then the Presiding Officer will exercise a casting vote to determine who will be the Chief Secretary. The same procedure will apply to the post of Deputy Chief Secretary if there is also a tie.

The President will then administer the oath of office to the Chief Secretary and the Deputy Chief Secretary. He would also appoint the Minority Leader by choosing the Assemblyman, who in his opinion, commands the support of the largest number of Assemblymen who do not support the Chief Secretary.

The constitution does not prescribe a role for the Central Government in such a case and there is no formula in the THA act to kick start the assembly if such a situation develops.

Good sense would have to prevail and the elected THA members themselves would have to get creative and figure out a compromise to make the institution work. Another election is not an option, at least according to the written rules.

Jai Parasram

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai