According to the provisions of our Constitution, the President, although Head of State, has little executive authority and simply performs ceremonial functions based on the advice of the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader. The President is required to be non-partisan in the execution of his or her duties. This, in my view, is where one such misalignment of Constitution and national ethos begins. As one looks past the formality of an electoral college and secret ballot, the reality that emerges is the President, in all reality, is selected by the sitting Prime Minister. This begs the question: can this arrangement truly produce an independent presidency?
I previously argued that our British-styled Constitution was unsuited to Trinidad and Tobago, owing to our small size. This bold statement is supported by the fact that our Executive, bounded by collective responsibility and the party whip, makes up approximately 80 per cent of the ruling party seats held in an electoral college of Parliament. This concentration of power effectively gives the Prime Minister control of the legislature, which confers the power to decide who becomes or does not become president.
In my view, T&T needs an elected presidency to act as a check on the supreme power of the Executive. The Prime Minister and Cabinet is a body which suffers from a democratic deficit, as no one votes directly for the executive. An elected president would have a direct mandate from the people, conferring a true democratic legitimacy to exercise some measure of executive power.
In Singapore, another small state under Westminster, the elected president has the power to veto bills in parliament which the office holder considers to be unconstitutional or infringes the rights of any racial group in society. The president also holds the key to Singapore sovereign wealth funds, their version of our Heritage and Stabilisation Fund, and requires the cabinet or parliament to present a strong case for any withdrawals.
Additionally, the office has full independent power to appoint numerous public officials, including commissioners, to public service commissions and can decide on commissions of enquiry into any aspect of national governance even if the Prime Minister disagrees.
The presidential candidates are nominated from among senior executives of large private or public-sector organisations, and must never have been a member of any political party. The greatest unifying feature of all is the presidential election is reserved exclusively for any ethnic group that has not held the post in five terms of office.
As one contemplates the perennial nature of constitutional crisis in governance in T&T, the powers exercised by Singapore’s Executive President in their constitutional approach appear to be exactly what is needed in Trinidad and Tobago.