Orin: T&T and the executive presidency—a note of caution from Guyana

“[…] The Electoral College will meet later this month to choose President Paula-Mae Weekes’ successor, and there’s been much discussion about the presidency as it is—whether it should become an executive office, and even whether it should be abolished.

“[…] With an executive president, [former prime minister Basdeo] Panday argues, we’d have the politically idealised separation of powers—executive and legislature (and judiciary). What Panday did not make clear, at least in his reported/quoted comments, is whether the office of the prime minister should be retained alongside an execu­tive presidency. It’s a very important question…”

The following guest column on the relationship between the governments of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana was submitted to Wired868 by Orin Gordon, a Guyana-born, T&T-based media consultant who publishes at oringordon.com:

President Paula-Mae Weekes (right) is applauded by Prime Minister Keith Rowley (centre) as Chief Justice Ivor Archie looks on.
(Courtesy Office of the President)

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley gave a torturous explanation in Monday’s Express of how he and the chair of Police Service Commission both came to be at the Presi­dent’s House at the same time in August 2021, and he absolved President Paula-Mae Weekes of any blame for the mess that followed.

Nevertheless, the incidents do leave a stain on the tenure of the departing president.

The PM should understand any scepticism that we retain. The details of the what, when, who, why and how have come out in dribs and drabs—and not even his detailed description to journalist Ria Taitt of the events of the day clears things up.

His concurrent presence there had not even been acknowledged for some time. Are we to believe the nation’s chief executive is in the habit of carrying with him sensitive documents not related to the appointment he’s about to keep?

Then Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith (far right) attends a function with Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (second from left) and then Minister of National Security Stuart Young (second from right).
(Copyright TTPS)

Sparrow’s account of his close contact with Mrs Leach seemed more credible.

I feel a little sorry for the president. She seems to have been put in a bad position that was not of her own making. She didn’t handle it well. She came into office transmitting rectitude. That has taken a hit. It had to have done so.

She was subject to an unprecedented impeachment vote by T&T’s Electoral College, consisting of both of Parliament’s chambers—­upper and lower, elected and selected.

In the year that Queen Elizabeth died, the president shared in one of 2022’s most poignant and powerful images. She and a frail QE II—months from death and with a blanket draped over her knees to ward off the springtime chill—shared a moment of human warmth outside of Windsor Castle.

President Paula-Mae Weekes (left) shares a moment with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle during the Queen’s Jubilee.
(via Platinum Jubilee Celebration Committee)

They were enjoying a T&T steelband performance that was part of the Queen’s jubilee celebrations.

I’ve never had a conversation with the president, but I suspect she won’t miss the office. The Electoral College will meet later this month to choose her successor, and there’s been much discussion about the presidency as it is—whether it should become an executive office, and even whether it should be abolished.

Former prime minister Basdeo Panday advocated an executive presidency in an interview with the T&T Guardian. Presidential and parliamentary elections would be different votes. They could occur on the same ballot, or not.

Haiti in our region and many countries outside of it have separate votes for president and parliament. In France, for example, they even occur at different times.

Late Prime Minister Arthur NR Robinson (right) is greeted by then Cabinet colleague and subsequent Prime Minister Basdeo Panday.
Robinson was head of the NAR government.
(Courtesy Trinidad Guardian)

With an executive president, Panday argues, we’d have the politically idealised separation of powers—executive and legislature (and judiciary). What Panday did not make clear, at least in his reported/quoted comments, is whether the office of the prime minister should be retained alongside an execu­tive presidency. It’s a very important question.

I’m Guyanese, and I have some thoughts on that. A 1980 referendum in Guyana approved reform of the constitution to make the presidency an executive one.

The then-prime minister, Forbes Burnham, who gained and kept power for decades through election rigging, didn’t seek it with benign ­intentions. Appropriating to himself the title of president was part of Burnham’s descent into megalomania. His wearing of regal purple and riding around on horseback was to follow.

Former Guyana leader Forbes Burnham.
(Courtesy Guyana Graphic)

I’ve personally gone back and forth on Guyana’s executive presidency. I used to think we should revert to having an executive PM, with a nationally unifying figure—such as an Amerindian tochao (chief)—as president. However, I’ve come to believe that an executive presidency is a sensible modern reform for countries whose systems were Westminster-influenced.

What they need to do is to figure out properly what to do with the Office of the Prime Minister, once executive power shifts.

In Guyana, the general election running mate of the winning presidential candidate becomes prime minister, and s/he is usually someone who doesn’t look like most of the president’s base.

In a country sharply divided by race, this ticket balancing is well-meaning and ­arguably necessary. But the OPM isn’t the way to achieve it.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) and Guyana President Dr Irfaan Ali.
(Copyright Office of the President)

The president’s running mate should become a vice-president—a VP and not necessarily the VP. A country, like a firm, should have more than one if it wishes.

Once Guyana made the presidency executive, it should have abolished the OPM. This is not a criticism of any of the occupants of that office. It is simply to say to T&T that you’d need to carefully figure out the role, function and future of an OPM if you make the OP ­executive.

There are arguments for keeping the ceremonial presidency. The president has sensitive, above-the-fray constitutional duties. These include her role in the selection process for a commissioner of police—the very one for which Weekes was subjected to an impeachment vote.

Putting those duties in the hands of a political executive would politicise processes that should be free of it. T&T would need to devise different constitutional arrangements.

President Paula-Mae Weekes (right) presents a letter of appointment to Police Service Commissioner chair Bliss Seepersad.
(Copyright Office of the President)

Dispatch box accountability, in which a prime minister has to come to parliament and explain and defend her policies, is no bad thing. That’s so even if Britain’s House of Commons is more theatre than substance today—with the anointed winner of an exchange being the PM or opposition leader quicker on his feet, and deploying more colourful soundbites.

An executive president wouldn’t have to face the parliamentary grilling that Rowley has to. An executive presidency means more, concentrated power. Be careful what you wish for.

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