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Chaotic attempt to remove Trinidad & Tobago's president demonstrates how ‘the country was the real loser’

The screenshot of the Extraordinary Sitting of Trinidad and Tobago's House of Representatives on October 21, 2021, is taken from a YouTube video posted on the ParlView channel.

The polarised political tenor of Trinidad and Tobago has been playing out in various ways over the past few months, culminating in a parliamentary session on October 21, in which opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar brought a motion to remove the country’s sitting president, Paula-Mae Weekes, from office.

Political allegiances in the country have long been largely based on race, with the opposition United National Congress attracting a primarily Indo-Trinbagonian voter base, and the People's National Movement, currently in government, appealing to Afro-Trinbagonian balloters, each respectively comprising the nation's two largest ethnic groups.

The lead-up to the motion to remove the president from office, however, can be traced back to August, when allegations of corruption in the police service, specifically with regard to the process of issuing firearms users’ licenses, hit the press. Like some sort of parallel pandemic, the virus soon spread, infecting the manner in which the appointment of the country’s police commissioner was being handled, with the body count increasing at every turn—from incumbent commissioner Gary Griffith insisting his suspension from the post was illegal and taking to social media at every opportunity to express his displeasure, to acting commissioner Mc Donald Jacob suggesting that the parameters within which he was expected to operate gave him no substantial authority.

Bliss Seepersad, chair of the Police Service Commission (PSC), the autonomous body charged with—among other things—appointing, appraising and disciplining commissioners, appeared to be bungling her job, initially submitting to the country’s president, as is required, a list of candidates for the position of police commissioner, then withdrawing it. Even as President Weekes expressed bewilderment, members of the PSC began to resign, one by one, until there was no commission to speak of and the chair herself stepped down amid rumours that a high-level official had “interfered” in the process. This, according to one senior counsel, signalled possible constitutional breaches and the potential implication of the president.

It soon came to light that the official under the microscope was Prime Minister Keith Rowley, who addressed the issue in an October 16 press conference, during which he categorically denied the alleged interference, and harshly criticised Leader of the Opposition Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s intention to pursue the motion to have the president removed from office, in a dressing down that included inflammatory, gender-focused language.

While the motion was ultimately unsuccessful, many social media users, as well as journalists in attendance, expressed the view that it was not the only thing that failed. On one public thread, Facebook user Razia Ali said:

I think the country was the real loser. The ranks of the non-aligned would have increased today by those looking for the kind of leadership that can heal this broken country and bring everyone together. Not a good showing by any of the principals!!!!

Throughout the parliamentary session, Speaker of the House Bridgid Annisette-George found herself faced with a barrage of interruptions from the opposition bench, despite the clear constitutional parameters governing the motion.

At odds with Section 36 of Trinidad and Tobago’s Constitution, which entails four procedural steps regarding removal from office—proposal of the motion, adoption of the motion, investigation by a tribunal, and finally, consideration of the tribunal’s report by members of both houses of parliament—the opposition wanted a debate. During the Speaker’s announcements portion of the agenda, there were several interruptions, as well as opposition members speaking out of turn, banging on tables, complaining of microphones being shut off, and accusing her of “attempts to silence the free flow of information.”

The Speaker suspended the session, but when it resumed 15 minutes later, there was more of the same. “Surely, the honourable leader of the opposition is not suggesting that the speaker of the house insert words into the constitution that are not there,” Annisette-George said, adding:

I cannot and will not assume upon myself the power to construe the words of the constitution in a way which is inconsistent with its clear intention simply to appease the competing interests of those involved and I so rule.

Nevertheless, the session dragged on for more than two hours, during which the concerning degree of the country’s political tribalism became clear to many social media users:

Fellow Twitter user @MauriceVET concurred:

Netizens addressed the comportment of parliamentarians, as in this tweet from journalist Asha Javeed:

There was also concern about parliamentarians’ apparent ignorance of the country's Constitution:

The issue of gender also came into play. As Persad-Bissessar accused Prime Minister Rowley of using women like the Speaker of the House “as shields to protect his government,” Twitter user Samantha Maria commented:

In the lead-up to Trinidad and Tobago's 2015 general elections, Rowley, who was then in opposition, was called a “product of rape” in parliament by his political foes. At the time, the statement was considered a new low for political mudslinging.

Another Twitter user observed:

Since October 21, however, the leader of the opposition, who is also a senior counsel, has doubled down, promising to bring legal action against Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George over the “illegal guidelines” she adhered to in parliament, as well as to file a motion of no confidence against the prime minister himself. She has also accused independent senators, who are appointed by the president, of “singing for their suppers.”

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