By Raffique Shah
February 17, 2013
President-elect Anthony Carmona will assume office in a few weeks amidst great expectations by a large number of citizens. Ever since the judge was named as Government’s choice for Head of State, people from all strata of the society have been effusive in endorsing his nomination. Across the political and social spectra, it seems that everybody loves President Tony—if I may be familiar with His Excellency the way we were with President Max and President Robbie.
As I familiarised myself with the new President through the eyes of persons who claimed to know him well, I could not help but conjure images of a superman of sorts. His impressive CV alone makes him eminently qualified for the position, although academic achievement and vast experience, by themselves, do not necessarily make someone suitable for the presidency.
Ideally, the Head of State should possess a sharp intellect, integrity beyond question, and his stature would be enhanced if he has remarkable leadership qualities and commands the respect of all citizens. Add to these demanding standards the common touch and native wit, and, I guess, we have the perfect President. I don’t know that any of our past presidents embodied most or all of these qualities, and it would be unfair to demand them of president-elect Carmona.
From all accounts, though, he does not fall far short of these standards. Given the nature of this society, if there were any skeletons in Carmona’s cupboard, by now they would have made their way onto the front pages of the newspapers or gone viral on the social media. Instead, we have learnt that besides being bright, he sang calypso, plays mas’, and as he moved up the professional and social ladders, he remained accessible to the ordinary man.
Carmona will be sworn in as President on March 18 with much goodwill from the citizenry, and great expectations among many. The question he must have asked himself, and I ask, is what do people expect of the new President? Why is there all this hype over his taking office in contrast to 2003 when, with little fanfare, Max Richards succeeded Arthur NR Robinson? I think the transition means different things to different people.
UNC members in the ruling coalition view Richards as a “PNM President”. In fact, last Christmas, party chairman Jack Warner launched a scathing attack on Max, saying he would leave a “shameful legacy” when he demitted office, and that he was “a puppet of the PNM”. Neither the Prime Minister nor any of his Cabinet colleagues censured Warner for this broadside against the Head of State. One can deduce, therefore, that they agreed with him.
Since Carmona was selected for the presidency by the ruling coalition, will he be seen as a “UNC puppet”? This question is as tasteless as it is baseless. But it is perfectly legitimate, given the way Warner (and other ministers) dragged Max into partisan politics. I should think that the president-elect would be highly offended by the mere suggestion that his independence is compromised even before he takes the oath of office. But I shan’t be surprised if many in the UNC see him as “we boy”, as someone whose loyalty must be to the party that put him in the highest office.
I need add that ever since she announced Carmona’s candidacy, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has maintained the statesman-like stance she should in commending him to the nation. Nothing she has said suggests that she has breached Carmona’s independence. Moreover, in promoting the transition, she thanked President Richards for having served the country well. It’s a pity that she appeared to have condoned a serious assault on his integrity on the eve of his departure.
Apart from the potential for mischief from those who believe they own him, president-elect Carmona will face an even more daunting challenge from persons who are opposed to the Government. In the face of a number of “missteps” that bordered on violations of the spirit of the Constitution—Section 34, matters relating to national security and independent commissions and appointees—such persons see the new president as someone who must rein in a runaway horse.
In my view, the interventions they seek are just not possible, which is why the outgoing office holder failed to act. Besides constitutional constraints that limit his powers, the President cannot and ought not to fight people’s political battles. Sure, if the Government commits flagrant breaches of the Constitution or common law, the President could register his displeasure and try to persuade the Prime Minister to do what is right.
But what if the PM refuses to conform? I don’t think the Constitution empowers the President to fire a prime minister. The electorate alone has that power. So those who expect president-elect Carmona to rescue them from what they may see as oppressive rule, think again. Not even Superman can move the mountain that is an elected government.
Still, a besieged people live in hope. And Carmona’s coming has ignited a lot of hope in the hearts of many citizens. What do I want the new President to address? I think he should examine his powers as Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s Armed Forces. Over the years, politicians have quietly subverted the President’s constitutional authority. For example, only the C-i-C ought to approve of promotions at the highest levels of the Defence Force, and bestow rank.
For some time now, the Minister of National Security has seized that role — which is an unhealthy development. At all times, the TTDF must be seen to be above politics. In the UK, the Defence Secretary makes such announcements, but always says, “…Her Majesty The Queen has approved to appointments (or promotions) of….” A word to the wise.