Sunday 9th September, 2007

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Going where Williams could not go

The recent decision by the political leader of the PNM, Patrick Manning, to use opinion polls that were personally requested by him as a means of screening candidates for seats currently held by PNM Members of Parliament, has caused considerable controversy.

Perhaps, the first sign of this was the decision by Ken Valley to openly challenge his leader by submitting his nomination papers to be screened for the Diego Martin Central seat, contrary to the speculation that Valley will be denied the opportunity to stand again as a PNM candidate.

It was interesting that the polls were leaked to the press, and that Valley had done his own poll as well.

The use of opinion polls and counter opinion polls, as a means of determining who should be the candidate, means that this fight is likely to go all the way to the central executive of the party.

If Manning has enough support there, he will get his way. However, in doing so, he will be going where even Eric Williams failed to go when he wanted to get rid of certain PNM incumbents in the 1976 general election.

In that year, Williams found himself in a showdown with Carlton Gomes, Brensley Barrow, Victor Campbell, Sham Mohammed and Lionel Robinson (all of whom he had labelled as millstones around his neck).

The constituency executives in the respective constituencies stood up for their candidates, and Williams could not have them removed.

His response was to vow that he would not speak on their platforms and he would not include them in his Cabinet.

He made good on both promises during the campaign and after the election when the PNM had won.

All five won their seats and they were promptly left out of the Cabinet.

Appoint senators

The limit on the number of senators who could serve as ministers had been removed in the Republican Constitution, which had just come into effect, and he was able to redress any shortfalls in the House of Representatives by appointing more senators as ministers, as well as creating super ministers (eg John Donaldson as Minister of National Security and Minister of External Affairs).

At the same time, Williams also made a public pronouncement that no defeated candidate would be appointed as a senator.

This was in response to the defeat of both PNM Tobago candidates who were ministers, namely Basil Pitt and Wilbert Winchester.

The constitutional changes that Manning would like to introduce in the next Parliament require him to remove any MPs who are likely to block his version of the executive presidency.

Additionally, he would need to have MPs who are personally loyal to him, as opposed to being personally loyal to the party.

The reason for this is the fact that the brand of executive presidency that has been put forward in the Ellis Clarke draft constitution is a hybrid that eliminates the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature and locates executive and legislative power in the House of Representatives.

A party can be in power and it can change its president by majority vote in the House of Representatives under the Ellis Clarke model.

There would no longer be any impartial arbiter called the president to preside over the system because the Head of State and the Head of Government would become one.

In other words, under the Ellis Clarke model, the executive president would be no more than an elected MP who has the support of a majority of MPs and who will vacate his seat upon becoming the President.

However, the easiest way for Manning to become the executive president will be by the use of transitional provisions in the new constitution that will make the holder of the office of Prime Minister become the new President.

At the same time, the office of President, as currently constituted, will be abolished.

Nevertheless, Manning has argued publicly that the executive presidency is a natural evolution from our current constitutional arrangements.

That is debatable, as a presidential model is not necessarily part of an evolutionary trend away from a parliamentary model.

Regardless of how one may wish to construe the debate, the reality is that Manning has to make drastic changes in order to take control of the MPs who will be elected for the PNM after the general election.

He is confident that he will win, and many sitting MPs are clearing the way for him. Those who are not clearing the way are likely to be pushed out by the findings of his polls.

How the constituency executives handle this challenge will be interesting, indeed.

The fact that Manning has changed the criteria for the selection of PNM candidates from what was being used for constituencies not controlled by the PNM is significant.

The playing field is not level; the goal posts have been moved and the targets have been identified.

The uproar that this has created in the PNM will play itself out in the selection of candidates.

Change constitution

The only difference between 1976 and now is that Williams made sure to change the Constitution before he had the showdown with his proverbial millstones.

Manning is yet to change the Constitution, and he needs his new MPs to help him do that if he gets enough of them.

If some of the current PNM Members of Parliament are put up as PNM candidates once again, then he will not be able to get what he wants, because of the internal resistance.

For the PNM to be suddenly facing this turmoil, just months away from a general election, could create a new dynamic in the process that was not there before.

Will some party supporters become demotivated and demoralised because of these challenges?

That is a risk that Manning seems prepared to take.

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