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.