Sunday, February 10, 2013

Guest Commentary: From political hegemony to consensus - by Dr Hamid Ghany

With Justice Anthony Carmona as the sole nominee for the office of President of the Republic of T&T last Monday came an important shift in the political psychology of the country. That shift was a move from the traditional hegemonic dominance of the Government over the Opposition in the determination of who should be elected as president.

The process employed by the Government was highly commendable as the Prime Minister responded to a nomination from the Opposition by proposing a face-to-face meeting with the Opposition to discuss the matter. There were adequate social media photographs of the historic encounter.

The Government then had to engage in a consensus dialogue among its own members after its meeting with the Opposition so that a consensus candidate could be named. That, too, was historic.

The record of presidential nominations in the past is that they have always been based on the philosophy of political hegemony. In 1976, Sir Ellis Clarke became president by virtue of the transitional provisions of the republican constitution. The electoral college met to formally elect him in December 1976 and the first sitting of the electoral college was boycotted by all of the ULF Members of Parliament.

The second time the electoral college met, in December 1981, President Clarke was the only nominee as the combined opposition of the ULF (eight) and the DAC (two) only had ten seats, so that the requirement of 12 MPs for a valid nomination could not be met.

The third sitting in February 1987 came about because of the need to enact legislation to alter the date for its sitting because of the December 1986 general election and the dissolution of Parliament. Act No 1 of 1987 cleared the way for this and there was only one nominee when the electoral college met in February 1987 to choose President Noor Hassanali, as the PNM only had three seats in the House of Representatives.

The fourth sitting in February 1992 produced a consensus nominee, as President Noor Hassanali was re-elected despite the fact that the PNM had won the December 1991 general election. The PNM opted to retain him for a second term.

The fifth sitting produced the first contested election for the presidency, when the Government nominated one of its ministers, ANR Robinson, and the PNM responded by nominating Justice Anthony Lucky. The secret ballot produced a vote primarily along party lines, thereby making the presidency the product of political dominance along party lines.

The sixth sitting was delayed by one year owing to the fact that the date on which the college was supposed to meet in February 2002, took place during the period of the dissolution of Parliament and the Parliament was not summoned for its first meeting until April 2002, following the 18-18 tie of the December 2001 general election.

The sitting Speaker could not summon the electoral college within its stipulated time period, as no parliamentarians had as yet taken their oaths of office, as is customary at the first meeting, and Parliament was still dissolved. 

The House of Representatives was unable to elect a Speaker in April 2002 at its first meeting and a second try was made in August 2002, which also failed. As a consequence, Parliament was dissolved and another general election was held in October 2002.

That Parliament was then able to elect a Speaker and by February 2003, the new Speaker was able to convene the sixth sitting of the electoral college.
That sitting also produced a contested election, between Prof George Maxwell Richards (the nominee of the PNM) and Mr Ganace Ramdial (the nominee of the UNC). Once again, the vote was primarily along party lines and the presidency continued to exude a partisan political image. 

In 2008, despite the fact that the UNC had 15 MPs, they did not put forward a nominee of their own for the presidency and President Richards was elected unopposed. 
In 2013, it is obvious that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar chose to do things differently from the past. The PNM was in a position to make a nomination of its own without recourse to discussion with the Government, and the Government was also in a position to make a nomination of its own without recourse to the Opposition.

The Prime Minister decided to go the route of seeking a consensus candidate for the presidency. This approach of meeting the Opposition before she met with her own political partners in the People’s Partnership Government produced a candidate who is genuinely the product of political consensus. The Opposition PNM came out in support of the nomination of Justice Carmona.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has clearly made a difference to the way in which a president of this country can be chosen in future. Her political magnanimity on this issue is indeed a credit to her leadership. She moved the presidency from political hegemony to political consensus. 

Congratulations to Justice Carmona.

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