As embattled Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar stepped into the Senate chamber last week to pilot the first major shake-up of her country’s constitution in three decades, she called it a necessary battle to put power back into the hands of the people.
“I am aware as I enter the political battlefield that this may be political suicide, but we can’t do business as usual,” Persad-Bissessar said.
Some 1,450 miles to the north in the Bahamas, an equally besieged Prime Minister Perry Christie, who is pushing four amendments instituting full equality between the sexes, also has remained steadfast that the changes are necessary to bring his country out of the dark ages.
“We must cease, as a nation, to base our laws and policies and administrative actions on whether someone is a male or female,” he said.
But the ongoing effort by the two young independent nations to carve out their own post-independence identity away from their British beginnings isn’t without growing pains. The efforts at reform in the island nations have triggered protests and heated public outcry as opponents accuse Persad-Bissessar of trying to rig a future win in Trinidad, and Christie of seeking to allow gay marriage in the Bahamas.
The struggle over issues of culture and democracy come as the countries join others in the Caribbean that are wrestling with an age-old question: Should their constitutions, modeled after Britain’s democratic parliamentary system, be tailored to suit their existing societies or be tinkered for improved societies in the future?
“There is a feeling that the Westminster formula has not served us well, that it is not relevant to our circumstances,” said Selwyn Ryan, a leading Trinidadian political scientist. “For some folks, I think there is a genuine concern to find something that is more in keeping with our aspirations, our history, our political culture.”
But what that something should be has spawned bitter exchanges and fears about the future of otherwise stable democracies.
In the Bahamas, the debate over the first four of 73 recommendations by a constitutional reform commission has become so contentious that the commission chairman told the Miami Herald a scheduled Nov. 6 referendum “is a bit of a moving target.”
“There may be some postponement,” said Sean McWeeney, a former attorney general who said he’s been surprised by the outcry over the last bill that would outlaw discrimination based on sex.
The bill’s use of the word “sex” triggered debate as opponents of gay marriage and others accused Christie’s Progressive Labor Party-led government of trying to create a path for same-sex marriages in the conservative country.
“I am a bit surprised, this same-sex argument has been pursued as relentlessly as it is,” said McWeeney, pointing out that the prohibition against same-sex marriage has been enshrined in Bahamas’ matrimonial law since 1879.
The commission has since clarified the bill’s language, but McWeeney and other reform supporters aren’t certain that the clarification and an ongoing public education campaign will be enough to calm fears over gay marriage and over a citizenship bill that critics charge will open the door to bogus marriages between Bahamian women and foreign men.
“There is a genuine level of concern out there,” he said. “This whole constitution exercise could run up on the rocks and get stalled.”
Bahamas opposition deputy leader Loretta Butler-Turner said if the amendments are defeated, “we will probably be referendum shy for generations to come.”
“These bills are needed because we’ve got to be able to allow our children and the children of our mothers, sisters, daughters to be able to be a part of the development of this young nation,” said Butler-Turner, whose Free National Movement party is supporting the bills. “We will lose them unless we give them the opportunity to become full fledged Bahamian citizens.”
Still, Butler-Turner said she understands why some Bahamians have been reluctant to embrace the reforms and accept Christie’s word that same-sex marriage will not be made lawful.
In 2002, the same bills were brought forward by the FNM, which was then in control of the government. The PLP, led by Christie, also was in agreement. But then it campaigned against the changes, helping seal its demise.
“People are very apprehensive, apathetic, untrusting and looking at them with a jaundiced eye,” Butler-Turner said. “There is a great deal of mistrust with regard to what might happen if they vote ‘Yes.’ They are not sure their vote will be upheld.”
The issue of trust also has emerged in Trinidad where critics of the recent amendment exercise accuse Persad-Bissessar’s coalition government of rushing to usher in change without adequate public consultation, especially on the runoff provision.
Feelings against the provision were so intense that the first day of Senate debate was marked by clashes between riot police and members of the public outside Parliament. The subsequent vote approving runoffs for parliamentary candidates who fail to win 50 percent of the vote only fueled more skepticism and political uncertainty, and a legal challenge.
The Independent Liberal Party (ILP), a small third party, has sued to block the provision, calling it unconstitutional.
“We believe the government is preparing to manage the machinery of the next general election so it has the distinct advantage in the marginal constituencies, where the runoff is expected to be more prevalent,” ILP leader Lyndira Oudit said. “We believe the government has recognized its unpopularity and will use the runoff to gerrymander the results.”
The new provisions also include a two-term limit for prime ministers and the right to recall legislators. But it’s the runoff provision that has been the most controversial with two cabinet members, Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran, voting against it.
“I am not sure how many third parties would qualify to go into that second runoff,” said Seepersad-Bachan, chairwoman of the Congress of the People, a member of the governing coalition.
Some observers also believe the provision will further entrench Trinidad’s racial division that has dominated the politics of the country’s two major parties. Analysts also say it will make elections longer and costlier and spur political uncertainty and possible instability.
Because the runoff bill was amended in the Senate, it must now go back for a new vote in the Lower House, where the prime minister enjoys a majority, before being sent to President Anthony Carmona. It remains unclear whether he will sign the bill.
“The system was due for an overhaul but not necessarily a complete overhaul,” Ryan said. “We don’t know where this new plan, runoff system, came from. … It came as a complete surprise and there is a lot of skepticism.”
At a glance
A sample of the referendum questions in the Bahamas that still must be approved by parliament before the public can vote on them in a scheduled Nov. 6 referendum:
Do you approve of The Bahamas Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014?
Under this proposed change to the Constitution, a child born outside The Bahamas would become a Bahamian citizen at birth if either its mother or father is a citizen of The Bahamas by birth.
Do you approve of The Bahamas Constitution (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014?
Under this proposed change to the Constitution, the foreign spouse of a Bahamian citizen would be able to obtain citizenship subject to satisfying:
(i) existing national security and public policy considerations; and
(ii) new provisions guarding against marriages of convenience.
Do you approve of The Bahamas Constitution (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014?
Under this proposed change to the Constitution, a Bahamian father of a child born out of wedlock would be able to pass his citizenship to that child subject to legal proof that he is the father.
Do you approve of The Bahamas Constitution (Amendment) (No. 4) Bill 2014?
Under this proposed change to the Constitution, it would be unlawful to discriminate based on sex, and “sex” would be defined as meaning male or female.
Source: Bahamas government