By Gail Alexander
Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday may be able to keep his Couva North seat in Parliament while the guilty verdict against him is on appeal, but it is uncertain whether he can stay on as Opposition Leader.
Immediately after the verdict yesterday, questions arose whether Panday will be able to keep his seat, and whether he would remain as Opposition Leader and UNC chairman.
Commenting on the issue, UNC MP Kamla Persad-Bissessar said: “The section of the law is clear that a person will not lose their seat until all appeals are exhausted, so he doesn’t have to give up his seat. But, of course, he has to make his own personal decisions also, and the party has to as well.”
Persad-Bissessar had just returned from a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association women’s conference in the Bahamas, when the verdict was handed down against Panday.
After her return to T&T, Persad-Bissessar said she felt the sentence was unduly harsh.
“I’m of the view that it may not stand on appeal,” she added.
Her opinion about Panday’s seat was corroborated by a Parliament source.
The source pointed out that Section 49 (3) and (4) of the Constitution states an MP shall vacate their seat if the sentence of death or imprisonment is imposed in excess of one year.
It also states that where the case is open to appeal, the MP shall, forthwith, cease to perform their functions as an MP of the House of Representatives and “shall not vacate his seat until the expiration of a period of 30 days hereafter.”
The House Speaker may, from time to time, extend that period for further periods of 30 days to enable the member to pursue appeals against the court decision.
But according to section 49 (4), after 150 days, the House—and not the Speaker—will have to resolve whether to extend the periods further.
The Parliament source also explained that in those circumstances, while Panday may be able to remain as an MP with his salary intact, this may be in name only, since he may not be able to serve on House committees or attend sittings.
Parliament sources also felt that if Panday “ceased to function” as an MP, although keeping his seat, he may not be able to remain as Opposition Leader.
The Parliament source quoted Section 83 3 (d) of the Constitution, which notes that the office of Opposition Leader shall become vacant “by virtue of section 49 (3) if he is required to cease his functions as a member of the House of Representatives.”
Former Senate President Michael J Williams, commenting on the situation, said: “My first reaction to the issue is one of sadness that something like this has happened to a former prime minister of T&T. It’s not a matter to gloat over, irrespective of what is their political allegiance; it’s a matter for sadness.
“My interpretation of the acts are that he must cease functioning as an MP, although he may not lose his seat for 30 days. And in my view, if he has to cease functioning as an MP, he cannot function as Opposition Leader.”
Former UWI lecturer (Government), Dr John La Guerre, agreed that Panday’s seat cannot be declared vacant while the court matter is under appeal.
“This may take a couple years and the status quo can remain, but pressures may mount. As to the issue of Opposition Leader, it seems more a moral question and how the Parliament’s standing orders are interpreted, but the orders cannot abrogate the Constitution,” La Guerre said.
“Whatever, the UNC is now mortally wounded and this can be a very unhealthy state of affairs since the situation can give rise to things like unconstitutional outbursts.”
Soon after yesterday’s verdict, at least two senior UNC MPs agreed that in the situation, UNC political leader Winston Dookeran should function as Opposition Leader, once he gets the support of at least eight MPs.
On the post of UNC chairman, prior to the verdict, there had been opinions in some party quarters that Panday should give up that post as well, if he was found guilty.
Dookeran was in a lengthy meeting after the verdict was delivered. A source said he was trying to gauge reactions to the situation.
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