By Peter Richards
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, CMC – Former prime minister Kamla Persad Bissessar was sworn in as Opposition Leader on Monday and defended the decision of her United National Congress (UNC) to challenge the outcome of the September 7 general elections based on a decision of the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) to extend the voting period by one hour.
Persad Bissessar, accompanied by members of her former administration took the oath before President Anthony Carmona, and insisted that the Constitution is the supreme law of Trinidad and Tobago.
“Our Constitution is the contract between the people and the State. It sets out the way our Republic is to be governed and the official Opposition is given an acknowledged role in that process.
“Insofar as our Constitution is supreme, all arms of the State must operate within its provisions. One of the pillars of our Constitution is therefore the rule of law – governance and State activity according to law – not according to the “Divine right of Kings” or the arbitrary dictates of some self-proclaimed elitist group, masquerading as “independent”.
She said that all institutions of the State, “be they the Executive, the Judiciary, the Legislature, the Service Commissions, the Integrity Commission, and in particular, the Elections and Boundaries Commission must operate in accordance with the Constitution and the law”.
Over the weekend, lawyers for the UNC, the biggest partner in the coalition People’s Partnership that had contested the general election, said they had been granted leave to file petitions challenging the results in at least six constituencies.
The constituencies include San Fernando West, St. Joseph, Tunapuana, Moruga/ Tableland, La Horquetta/ Talparo,
The People’s National Movement (PNM) won the general election by a 23-18 margin, but the UNC had contended that the decision by the EBC to extend the voting period in Trinidad due to the inclement weather was unconstitutional and wrong.
Attorney Wayne Sturge told reporters that the next step will be the presentation of the petitions “and then we get a date to come to court and argue”.
Attorney General Faris Al Rawi has maintained that the move by the UNC is a waste of time even and that it is “normal procedure” for the courts to grant leave ex-parte.
“As I have said previously, they are perfectly entitled to approach the court. My own view not having seen the papers yet, but from what has been reported is that the substantive application…is destined to fail.
“It is without merit and it lacks in any form or substance. The matter of obtaining leave to appeal is perhaps best described as procedural. It is a very very very low standard. The applications are dealt with on an ex-parte basis,” he said.
But Persad Bissessar, a senior counsel here, said that while the Constitution acknowledges and protects the role of independent institutions in the governance framework “I must add that the rule of law does not and cannot mean that our independent institutions must operate outside of their Constitutional remit, or that their constitutional independence is a justification for what may be arbitrary or biased actions.
“Some of our so-called “independent” commentators have expressed the view that the recently-mounted challenge to the election results in Court is an exercise in futility – that we should just accept the results and move along.
“I wish to respectfully disagree with these so-called independent minds. I wonder if the proverbial shoe was on the other foot, what would they say? You have often heard me say the phrase vox populi, vox Dei – “the voice of the people is the Voice of God.”
She said that those words have been used over the centuries as the clarion call for democracy, for government of the people by the people for the people.
“But how is the voice of the people to be heard? In constitutional democracies such as ours, based on the rule of law, the voice of the people is heard by constitutionally mandated free and fair elections, conducted in accordance with certain and clear rules and overseen by an independent electoral institution.
“But what if there is uncertainty in the exercise of a constitutional power by the body set up to oversee elections? What happens if the decision of the Elections and Boundaries Commission to extend the closing of the polls in Trinidad appears to be outside of the specific rules and laws governing the elections process?
“Our Constitution has provided for all of this. Our Constitution has also provided for a mechanism to challenge the result of an election by the bringing of what is called a Representation Petition to the Court by an elector or by a candidate.”
She told the ceremony that this method of challenging elections is a feature of constitutional democracies across the Commonwealth and “indeed has been used right here in Trinidad and Tobago on several occasions.
“The Court, under our Constitution, has the important task of deciding these challenges and of interpreting our Constitution to set the legal limits of the EBC’s powers.
“We have taken the decision to mount these challenges in the interest of all of the people of Trinidad and Tobago. It is in the national interest to have a determinative ruling from the Courts as to the parameters of the EBC’s powers under section 71 of the Constitution and under the Representation of the Peoples Act.”
She said the opposition should not be criticized for doing “what is right and lawful under our democracy.
“The decision of the Court in these matters will provide certainty and clarity for future elections. We say that it is better to use the avenue of challenge provided by the Constitution than to harbour lingering doubts and encourage seething resentment at what happened on the evening of 7th September, 2015.
“We have taken the hard road in the public interest in bringing these Court matters. Before any other elections in this country, every person must know whether the extension was wrong or was right. Right now, no one knows for sure and there are as much arguments for as there are against.
“We will let the Courts decide,” the former prime minister said, insisting that “these challenges are our legal entitlements to make.
“They are not and can never be seen as attempts to undermine or destabilize the current elected government. The Constitution provides that governance continues even while these questions are before the Courts,” she said, extending congratulations to the government.
She said her mission as Leader of the Opposition will be to hold the government accountable “to the people and to ensure that the people’s interests come first and take precedence over partisan political interests.
“In my new role I will continue to represent all the people as we did in government,” she added.