HAVING succeeded in amending the Tobago House of Assembly Act to increase the number of electoral districts from 12 to 15 and reduce the time-frame for the re-drawing of boundaries by the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC), the Government must now hope that it is not leading the country into a legal and political minefield in Tobago.
Political problems invariably require political solutions so it remains to be seen whether the Government’s legal fix-it will resolve Tobago’s electoral deadlock without incurring additional pain.
With the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) having initiated a first step towards legal action, the THA deadlock could be further deepened if the courts can be persuaded that in pushing through the measure, the ruling party unreasonably exercised its parliamentary advantage to achieve an electoral advantage in Tobago. We note the Prime Minister’s dismissal of such a suggestion but it is an arguable point which, if accepted by the courts, will complicate an already fraught situation.
Inevitably, the Government’s increase of electoral boundaries in the midst of a heated campaign will throw the focus on its inherent conflict of interest given its power to pass laws and its position as a political contender standing to benefit from the passage of the law.
It will also throw into sharp focus the independence of the EBC which, it can be argued, has been put into the position of taking instructions from the Government to resolve the People’s National Movement’s political problems in Tobago through a change of law.
What gives this argument potency is the election result which delivered a graphic image of the geographical spread of voter support in Tobago between the PNM in the western part of the island, and the PDP in the eastern part of the island. Accusations of gerrymandering are inevitable with any shifting of boundaries.
Dr Rowley is disingenuous in denying any perceived advantage to the PNM on the grounds that “it is the same people who voted in the 12 seats who will vote in the 15 seats.” The salient point is not who will vote but how these voters will be re-distributed on the basis of a new electoral list. One look at the electoral map after the January 25 election immediately suggests how a shift in boundaries might alter the outcome to favour the PNM, assuming voters don’t switch parties and that there is no increase in voter turn-out. In pressing ahead with the amendments against the urgings of non-PNM interests in Tobago, Dr Rowley has presented himself as an apolitical player in the process when in fact his political interest is the largest of all, given that he is both head of the party seeking an edge in Tobago and head of the national government with an existing political alignment with the Tobago’s governing body, the THA.
With an electorate of just 51,062 voters, the EBC will have to justify to the public a 25 per cent increase in districts which would lower the island’s representation ratio from 4,255 to 3,404 electors per assemblyperson.
Between the implications of this process and pending legal action, the Tobago deadlock may be some way from being broken.