Proportional Representation

It seems to me that time and again our election results here in sweet T&T beg for proportional representation.

This month’s Tobago House of Assembly elections concluded with a washout 12-0 result in favor of the People’s National Movement (PNM). The Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP), a member party of the central People’s Partnership government failed to capture a single seat. Now in my opinion the sound beating was a well deserved wake-up call for the present central government to rethink it’s approach; the people are clearly dissatisfied. There is however a serious problem in my mind that (1) the PNM has no opposition in Tobago and (2) the TOP got significant numbers of votes but not enough in any one district to retain a place in the House of Assembly.

What this means is that there are now people in Tobago without representation of their interests. It is my view that while the majority rules, any group that attains a sufficiently substantial number of votes deserves a voice in the relevant governing body.

The situation reminds me of the nationwide general elections of 2007. On that occasion, the Congress of the People (COP) contested all 41 seats in the House of Representatives, attained close to 23% of the popular vote but ended with zero seats in the House. This means that nearly 23% of the population did not have representation of their interests in the House. For comparison, the United National Congress (UNC) who formed the opposition for the period 2007-2010 had close to 30% of the popular vote and 15 of the 41 seats in the House.

In other words, a 7% difference in the popular vote gave one party 15 seats out of 41 and the other 0. It is a similar situation to this month’s Tobago House of Assembly elections. It is also similar to the 2001 general elections when there was an electoral tie in numbers of seats won. On that occasion the President exercised his constitutionally permitted discretion to have the PNM form the government even though the then-incumbent UNC held the popular vote.

Under the current system of first past the polls, it is extraordinarily difficult for a newcomer party to win a seat without some sort of coalition agreement. It is by extension nearly impossible to grow into a future governing party. This augurs even more poorly for independent candidates; they simply do not stand a chance.

The losers in this sort of system are the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Minority interests are not represented. No new parties can enter the game. We are stuck in a perpetual two party system. Even today with the People’s Partnership coalition government, the simple fact is that the UNC calls the shots.

We cannot hope to advance as a country with this system. Admittedly, proportional representation creates the potential for a minority government with multiple opposition forces. I do however think that such an arrangement will force a more mature, consultative form of governance.

There is much we as a country need to address in constitutional reform. Enhanced local government, reconciliation of the posts of Prime Minister and President and term limits are some that have arisen time and again. It is the humble view of this blogger that a move to proportional representation should be added to that list.


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