Trinidad & Tobago political reform

At the end of August, the Senate of Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) passed a package of constitutional amendments, which include some significant changes to the electoral system.

T&T has been a FPTP (M=1, plurality) system throughout its years as a democratic independent state. It has had some anomalous outcomes with FPTP, and, due to that record, in a book chapter published in 2008* I placed T&T on my “watch list” of jurisdictions in which the performance of the FPTP seemed to be setting the ground for the “inherent” conditions for a reform process to come about. Apparently T&T leaders agreed. However, the chapter was about conditions for fundamental reform to a different electoral system, such as a form of PR. The reform actually in the process of being adopted is instead non-proportional. It is still well within the “majoritarian” family. In fact, it could be seen as a move further in the majoritarian direction.

The amendments passed by the Senate call for a runoff system. The reforms have not exactly been a consensual process, with only government Senators and three independents voting for it, according to the Guardian (of T&T):

All the Opposition Senators present and six independents voted against the bill. However, the bill received the three Independents’ votes only after Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar agreed to accept an amendment to the controversial runoff clause put forward by [Independent Senator Dhanayshar] Mahabir.

The amended provision says that a majority is required for election in the first round. However, unlike the initial proposal of the government, when a runoff is needed it is not necessarily a top-two contest. Rather, the provision is that:

a third place candidate in an election, who gains 25 per cent of the votes and who is within a margin of not less than five percentage points of the second place candidate, also be allowed to contest the runoff election.

In case of a 3-candidate second round, the winner will be the candidate with a plurality. Thus we will have here a form of majority-plurality system, but with different (more “restrictive”) second-round qualifying rules than in France.

Other provisions in the original bill, and which I assume remain intact in the Senate version include (with my brief reaction):

    Term limits for the Prime Minister (unusual for a parliamentary system, although not unheard of–see South Africa and Botswana, where the term-limited “president” really is a PM).

    Right of recall against individual MPs (also unusual–unheard of?–in a parliamentary system).

    Fixed election dates (used to be unusual in British-influenced parliamentary systems, but seems to be all the rage these days).

Trinidad and Tobago is undergoing some fairly significant reforms. The bill awaits presidential assent, and despite a candlelight vigil outside the president’s residence by The Movement for Social Justice, assent is presumably a foregone conclusion.

* “Inherent and Contingent Factors in Reform Initiation in Plurality Systems,” in the edited volume by Andre Blais, To Keep or Change First Past the Post.

16 thoughts on “Trinidad & Tobago political reform

  1. There was also some talk of recall for MPs who have committed “serious wrongdoing” in the UK recently, as part of the coalition arrangement, but the plan was recently shelved.
    Oh, and I think British Columbia has initiative laws too. These laws have only been used once (to defeat a sales tax change).

  2. Perhaps slightly off topic, but is the Senate forcing amendments usual in Trinidad & Tobago? I was under, the perhaps erroneous, impression that the appoint senates in the Caribbean island nations were not that powerful.

  3. Why the change? Is one of both major parties breaking up? I’ve checked Adam Carr’s database and in 2010 all seats were won with a majority in mostly two-way-contests?

    • Bancki, I do not know the answer to that question, but T&T has had multiparty politics in the recent past, and one of the parties originates from a pre-election coalition of two parties that had “spoiled” an earlier race. (Some details in my earlier T&T “anomaly watch”.)

      Christopher and Mark, you are right about both the BC case and the UK (limited) proposals on recalls. “Unheard of” at the national level (so far)?

      Regarding second chambers in the Caribbean and their powers, I don’t think they are just window dressing, but I do not know how common it is for governments to lack majorities in them. Note that this provision is for a constitutional amendment, for which the rules regarding bicameral concurrence might be different (but I have not verified).

      • As far as I can remember, Caribbean upper houses are always guaranteed to initially have a government majority, as most senators are stipulated to be appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister. Under these institutions, absent a change of government between elections, a government should only lose its upper house majority if some of its senators defect. But anyway, I would identify upper house weakness in the region not so much in appointment mechanism as formal veto authority, which is (in all cases I’ve seen) severely limited; not surprising considering all those constitutions were passed after the 1911 Parliament Act.

    • JD, that’s my interpretation of the bill now awaiting presidential assent. But I’m not holding anything back! I did not see anything that explicitly said that the amended bill had been accepted by the house. However, given that one of the stories I did link to said that the PM accepted the independents’ amendment, and the PM has a majority in the first chamber, I have to assume…

  4. Based on my reading of the T&T constitution, several provisions for constitutional amendment require three-fourths votes of each house. Some require just two thirds. Still others appear to require just a majority, but clearly in each house. It appears that money bills are the only ones that can be assented to by the president even if not passed by the Senate.

    According to the news item linked to above, the amendments were approved by 18 Senators out of 31, which is not even 60%.

    As for the first chamber, the ruling party won 70.7% of seats at the 2010 election.

    I did not realize until now that there is a Tobago House of Assembly. The constitution also guarantees Tobago 2 (of currently 41) seats in the national House of Representatives. That is just short of 5%; the malapportionment is minor, as Tobago has around 4% of the national population. Keeping this ratio roughly proportional may be a main reason for the modest increases in assembly size over the years.

    • From section 65, I gather that the President can also sign a regular (non-money) bill not passed by the Senate when the House passes it in two consecutive sessions with at least 6 months between them (effectively, a 6-month suspensory veto). Interestingly, there may be an election between the two sessions.

      • That would appear to make it more like post-1911 UK, as you noted, JD. But would that also apply to constitutional amendments? I got the impression that the second chamber really did have a veto on these, but I may have missed some further provisions.

  5. Odd to embrace a two round system, and not a PR system. Isn’t a two round system more disproportionate than FPTP? Even more odder that they didn’t consider preferential voting.

    • Thanks, Bancki. Yes, I meant to post about that at the time, but did not get around to it.

      There was also an interesting dispute regarding the districting, as I recall.

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