By Raffique Shah
August 23, 2009
Listening to well-informed people, some of them respected intellectuals, argue against a system of government that allows for an executive president, intrigues me. They invariably pursue their arguments using fancy-words-work, but essentially they are little different to the barely-informed masses, who, on the eve of Trinidad and Tobago adopting a republican constitution in 1976, cried “bloody murder” over that minor change in our system of governance.
The ordinary man could have been excused then for thinking that a republican state allowed for whoever wielded power to summarily line up dissidents against a wall and have them shot.
They will have noted what transpired under military caudillo dictatorships, mainly in neighbouring Latin America, that disguised themselves as republican governments. They thought, egged on by irresponsible political leadership, that “sweet TnT” would be stripped of the rule of law, and that the Prime Minister would morph into a “prime monster” with the enactment of a republican form of government.
No such thing happened. In fact, after the new Constitution came into effect, and in the ensuing years it has remained in effect, nothing has changed. Which is where the real problem lies. If tomorrow the Patrick Manning Government were to use its majority in Parliament, and with a little help from dissidents in the opposition and independent senators, proclaim a new constitution that allows for an executive president, I guarantee you nothing will change. As CLR James once said of a particular trade unionist, “He is not reactionary, he is not revolutionary he is just stationary!”
What would be the major differences between the executive presidency system as advocated by the Manning “working paper”, and what obtains under the existing system? First, President Max Richards will seal his place in history as the last ceremonial president. Good riddance, I say.
And here I’m not casting aspersions at President Max, but pointing out the uselessness of the office. What has any president of the country done, since Ellis Clarke’s assumption of that role in 1976 that can be considered worthy of a palatial residence, a full staff, and these at great cost to taxpayers? Nothing!
So why should we be made to bear the costs of maintaining two-man-rats when we could easily settle for one? I mean, it’s not even a case buy-one-get-one-free! For all intents, if not purposes, the Prime Minister is the supreme leader. And I’m not referring only to Mr Manning, whose supremacy in Cabinet is not even a case of first among equals, but first among lasts.
Look at Basdeo Panday’s conduct in opposition. Not a damn dog dares to bark in his party. If he or she does, she is pilloried, drawn-and-quartered, and ultimately consigned to a cemetery that exists in Panday’s warped mind. The same holds true for most political parties we have known: you should read Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is, the authorised biography of the ever-cynical Vidia Naipaul.
So what difference would it make if we move from an all-powerful prime minister to a similarly empowered president? It will make absolutely no difference-unless the person who holds the office is benevolent, is prepared to govern by consensus, not by imposing his will on his party or on the population. That is all, nothing more, nothing less. Well, we save expenditure on a toothless president.
Why, therefore, are people all wired-up over this change that seems inevitable?
What we can argue over is how the president is elected to office. Or how his supreme powers should be constrained by the legislative arm of government. I am all for a president directly elected by the people. Mr Manning is against that. He argues that the result could be a president without a majority in Parliament. He says that is a recipe for confusion, since our politicians are not mature enough to put country before self or partisan interests.
So what else is new? Isn’t that the way it is now, and has been for as long as we have had adult franchise? True, Dr Williams, in his day, was able to conscript support from opposition members-the name Bhadase Maharaj comes to mind, as does Panday when, in 1978, Williams sought support for the un-implementable “Crossing the Floor” Bill. But those were conspiratorial alliances, not measures of maturity.
Any politician who does not want to put his future in the hands of his people should get the hell out of politics! Why say, “Let the people decide,” and then run scared of the masses? Such attitude goes against the grain of democracy, a system all our politicians proclaim as their creed, even if the fail to practice it in their parties, in their Cabinets. In any event, it is difficult to see a president being elected by a decent majority, while, based on the same elections, he fails to secure a majority in the House of Representatives.
So bring on an executive president. Let’s rid ourselves of the post-colonial shackles of an impotent president-and save the office holder from further humiliation. But let us avoid exchange, merely substituting Prime Minister for President. Change must mean something different, something better.