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Electing a president

Sunday, December 31, 2017

With the announcement that the Electoral College is going to meet on January 19 instant to elect a new President came a media story that suggested three possible names—one from the PNM and two from the UNC. After that journalistic trial balloon produced varied responses—from people whose names were called saying that they had no interest in the position to the UNC saying that they have not had a caucus to decide on any nominee—we are now left to ponder likely nominees as nowhere among the media stories was the name of the incumbent President called.

Until people actually sign a nomination form consenting to being nominated, all of the rest is just speculation. It takes 12 elected MPs to nominate someone for the position of President. That means that unlike the last time the Electoral College met in 2013 there could be another nominee as the PNM currently has 22 MPs with the 23rd (Maxie Cuffie) currently on medical leave, while the UNC has 17 MPs and the COP one.

In 1997 there was a contested Electoral College secret ballot when ANR Robinson was elected and in 2003 there was another contested secret ballot when George Maxwell Richards was elected.

In 1977 the first Electoral College sitting was boycotted by the United Labour Front (ULF) then led by Basdeo Panday when all ten ULF MPs stayed away in protest. President Ellis Clarke who had become President on August 1, 1976, by virtue of the transitional provisions in the republican Constitution was elected in January 1977. He was re-elected unopposed in 1982 as the combined opposition of the ULF (eight MPs) and the DAC (two MPs) was too small to nominate anyone.

In 1987 President Noor Hassanali was nominated after a 33-3 NAR victory and in one of the only occasions where an incumbent President was re-nominated by a different majority party, Noor Hassanali was elected unopposed as President in 1992 with the full consent of all sides in the House of Representatives as both the PNM (21 MPs) and the UNC (13 MPs) were in agreement despite the fact they could each have chosen their own nominees.

In 2013 the PNM in opposition were unable to nominate anyone as their twelfth MP (Patrick Manning) was on medical leave from his service as an MP Anthony Carmona was elected unopposed.

With no signals being advanced that President Carmona is likely to be asked to serve another term, he will become the first President not to do so despite being eligible to continue. President Robinson had serious health issues by the time he demitted office in 2003 after one term.

The concept of the Electoral College came from the Wooding Constitution Commission’s 1974 Report in which they had proposed that their Electoral College ought to consist of parliamentarians and local government councillors and that a two-thirds majority would have been required to be elected with a default position of a simple majority where such a threshold could not be reached.

That proposal was rejected by the Eric Williams administration and the Electoral College that came into being only consisted of parliamentarians with elected MPs alone being able to nominate a presidential candidate.

In the situation that faces the country ahead of January 19 one does not know whether the Prime Minister will hold any consultation with the Leader of the Opposition to discuss a consensus candidate as was done by Mrs Persad-Bissessar when she was Prime Minister in 2013.

Although the Government has a majority and it can push its nominee through on a purely partisan basis, will that be best for the country at this time? Or will the 1992 model of consensus between Prime Minister Patrick Manning and Leader of the Opposition Basdeo Panday be better as they both agreed on a single candidate for President?


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