Port of Spain, Trinidad — The United National Congress (UNC), ousted from government in the September 7 general election in Trinidad and Tobago, was on Friday granted leave to file election petitions to challenge the validity of the election process in six constituencies, namely:
- La Horquetta/Talparo
- St. Joseph
- Toco/Sangre Grande
- San Fernando West
Senior High Court Judge Madam Justice Mira Dean-Amourer made the order granting leave, certifying there is prima facie merit in the petitions and that there is a serious issue to be tried, namely, whether the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) acted illegally and in breach of the constitution when it extended the voting time from 6pm- 7pm on election day.
According to the UNC, the sudden decision of the EBC to extend the voting time caught many by surprise and led to chaos and confusion. Letters were written to notify the EBC that candidates were receiving numerous complaints from voters who were turned away from the polls when they went after 6pm to cast their vote because the EBC officials were themselves unaware of the EBC’s decision to extend the voting time.
According to local media, the then opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) had asked the EBC to extend the voting time. The EBC has neither confirmed nor denied the accuracy of this report. The UNC said it was never informed that such a request was made and the party was never officially informed by the EBC of its decision to extend the time for voting.
The EBC has defended its position, claiming that section 71 of the Constitution gave it autonomy to manage the registration of voters and the conduct of the election in an unfettered manner.
However, UNC attorney Wayne Sturge claimed the result vindicated former prime minister and UNC political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who first took issue with the EBC’s decision after her party’s election defeat.
“This is a slap in the face of those who believed that it was frivolous and vexatious. This shows that the rule of law prevails and in due course we will get our justice,” Sturge said.
According to Sturge, the matter should be dealt with in the space of nine months, adding that the eventual decision on the petitions could only be appealed to the Trinidad and Tobago Court of Appeal and not to the country’s final court, the London-based Privy Council.
PNM chairman Franklin Khan said the UNC was trying to cover up its internal problems.
“You have a leader there who has lost five consecutive elections now… that is their story. We will focus on governing this country in a fair and equitable manner,” he said.
“It is largely a matter between the UNC and the EBC, whether they acted within their remit and their jurisdiction. However, because the petition is specific to six constituencies, our MPs will be party to the petition,” he noted.
Former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj commented that there is “no legal basis” under the constitution for the challenges to succeed, adding that, even though leave was granted, “the court can still dismiss it as an abuse of process.”
“When the judge sees all the facts and listens to both sides, he could find there is no basis for it. One must always remember that under the Representation of the People Act, for an election petition to succeed, the person who files the petition must convince the court that the election results would have been different, if the impugned action did not occur,” he explained.
Maharaj said he had no doubt that “the court would rule against the UNC.”