ENHANCING OUR DEMOCRACY BEYOND FIXED TERMS WITH A FIXED DATE FOR GENERAL ELECTION

In previous articles, we considered that ongoing debate with respect to the potential abuses of authority, corrupt governance, the undermining of our democratic system, suppression of challengers, and the negative impact of these vices on the leadership succession both within the management structure of political parties and the socio-political system more generally.

 Such sentiments have been amplified in small Island societies like Dominica, St. Vincent, and Antigua where a Prime Minister operates as an independent, separate, and/or superior figurehead to the political party that he leads. The Prime Ministers of these islands firmly believe that the success of their respective political parties rest entirely on their ordained personality and their messianic ability to invoke the political spirits of their cult-like supporters. But, these leaders are well aware that while their charm could be the deciding factor in determining whether a party wins an election or fails at the polls, the popularity and election of the leader in a ‘poto’ constituency does not translate to the delivery of the prime-ministership nor does it allow for control of the government.

In our representative style parliamentary system, a political party is victorious by capturing the majority of electoral constituencies based on which there is a legitimate expectation that the party’s leader is appointed as Prime Minister and is then authorized to form his cabinet. However, the personal influence and stature of these long-serving Prime Ministers are so dominant in the socio-political sphere, this negatively impact on effective succession planning as these leaders recognize that their continued active participation in representative politics is crucial to secure a victory for their respective political parties.

While the public’s general desire for term limits on the tenure of a Prime Minister remains very high, in the region- mainly among opposition politicians, there are many who argue against any restrictions given the various ways in which a Prime Minister may be legally removed from office. As some government officials in Dominica has argued, theoretically in the course of governing, if the ruling party is dissatisfied with its leadership, it could choose a new leader among the elected members of parliament. Even if the incumbent officeholder wanted to remain as Prime Minister he/she could not do so once the majority of elected parliamentary representatives withdraw their support in favour of someone else.

Another argument advanced is that if the majority of members of Parliament from the governing and opposition parties express, a lack of confidence in the Prime Minister by a vote, he/she could be removed from office. The Prime Minister would either have to resign and hand over his position to an elected representative favoured by the majority in Parliament or he could choose to advise the President to dissolve the Parliament in preparation for a fresh general election.  Either way, that specific term of office of the Prime Minister would end.

The obvious is also advanced that a Prime Ministers could be removed from office by the will of the people at a general election. Again, theoretically, in a state with effective electoral machinery, an independent and professionally-minded Electoral Commission, free of manipulation of the electoral process and electoral corruption, where the majority of the electorate does not support the political party in office, they can change the government in a free and fair election. This would automatically bring the term of the sitting Prime Minister to an end. The person deemed to be commanding the support of the majority of the elected members to parliament is appointed as the new Prime Minister.

Unfortunately for us in small Islands like Dominica, Grenada, and St. Vincent, we have not learned the lessons and benefits of effecting political change that the rest of the world, except in some African and Arab states with dictators, enjoy from changing their leadership after two terms. It is evident that throughout the Commonwealth, primarily outside the Caribbean, very few Prime Ministers have served beyond three terms in office. Meanwhile, the citizens of Dominica and St. Vincent are prepared to re-elect their God-sent leaders for a 4th, 5th and possibly 6th five-year terms in office, while these two Islands continue to register the lowest economic growth rate in the OECS.

 This issue has been of paramount concern to the opposition parties in both Dominica and St. Vincent. In fact, it was a matter raised by the present Prime Minister of St Kitts during his first term but having won a second term in office, the matter seems to have put on the back burner.[1]  One would not be surprised that a third term is being contemplated. We are hopeful that the two-term principle in governance as the Prime Minister (not necessarily the Leader of Opposition) will remain core to the promises of the United Workers Party of Dominica as this is one of the major proposed measures to usher in good governance in Dominica. The UWP has declared its intention to lead and manage the country with respect for the democratic right of the people and it will pursue appropriate constitutional amendments and enact legislation to limit the term of office for any Prime Minister to two 5-year terms in addition to establishing a fixed date for general elections every five years.

 Set date for election

During the general election campaign in 2019, the United Workers Party (UWP) promised that it would focus on good, transparent, and accountable government with a bias to solutions, fair treatments, positive results, and just rewards for all. A few weeks prior to the announcement of the elections, the Leader of the United Workers Party accused Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of playing games with the people of Dominica and trivializing our democracy by withholding the date for the general election after the Prime Minister announced that elections would be held within the next 100 days. According to the Leader of Opposition Hon. Lennox Linton, “this business of one man or one woman having a date for election in his or her pocket and playing games for two and three years with the people must stop… if the UWP were to win the elections, no individual will serve for more than two consecutive terms in the seat of the Prime Minister and we would have a fixed date for election…” The majority of Dominicans agrees with this noble commitment of the UWP.

When the date for election is fixed, it cannot be changed by incumbent politicians other than through exceptional mechanisms as provided for in law, if at all. For some reason(s), a fixed election date is usually associated with presidential elections and elections for lower-level functionaries such as mayors but not for jurisdictions with Prime Ministers in a parliamentary system of government. In most jurisdictions with such a system, the maximum length of a term is normally stipulated. In Dominica, as is the case in most Caribbean jurisdictions, there is a five-year term, within which elections must be constitutionally held without a stipulated fixed date. The life of an administration may be extended to a maximum of three (3) months beyond the five-year term period.

 Unfortunately for us, our Prime Minister can hold the date of elections closely to his heart, give it to his baby son to hold and announce the date at any time he so desires. He can simply decide to don his magical pink shoes and announce the date for elections any day. Former Prime Minister Edison James used the power to call elections premature in 2000 in the opinion of many, which may have contributed to the demise of the party’s one term in government.  Prime Ministers often employed the mechanism to call an election before the end of the five-year term when in their estimation they would benefit from the distinct incumbent advantage- a political calculation that is informed by the political realities on the ground. Every Prime Minister is afforded the Constitutional authority to call an election and therefore, our Prime Ministers often toy with the opposition and the public, resulting in much anticipation and speculation as to the election date. This is, in fact, the reality of most Westminster forms of government, a legacy of our colonial past, inherited from the United Kingdom and which we continue to maintain, albeit the UK has itself moved away from the practice bypassing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 (FTPA).

The FTPA sets in legislation, a default fixed election date for a general election to the Westminster parliament. The next general election is automatically scheduled for “the first Thursday in May of the fifth year after the previous general election or the fourth year, if the date of the previous election was before the first Thursday in May”, except where there is a vote of no confidence in the government or where there is a vote explicitly in favour of an earlier election, which requires a qualified two thirds (2/3) of the total membership of the House of Representatives.

 In 1845, the United States Congress chose a single date for all national elections in all states. The first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in every even-numbered year, is established as the fixed day for the election in each of the States and Territories of the United States so that there would never be more than 34 days between Election Day and the first Wednesday in December. Tuesday was chosen as the day so that voters would not have to vote or travel on a Sunday. This was an important consideration at the time when the laws were written. This is still the case in some Christian communities in the United States. The day could fall on or between November 2 and November 8.This includes elections for national, state, and local government representatives at all levels up to the president.

 Pros and Cons of a Fixed-date for election

One may ask whether there any real benefits in moving from the current system to a fixed date. The main argument advanced by proponents of a fixed date for election is that it provides a level of certainty to businesses, citizens, especially those residing outside of the jurisdiction as it allows for an enhanced ability to plan in advance, take vacation days from work for travel to the jurisdiction to exercise their franchise.

Conceivably, the fact that the election date is set and certain; it effectively removes the element of surprise. It also prevents a government from calling more than one election during the five-year term, thus reducing the frequency of elections and the associated costs to the state of holding these elections.

Of most significance, especially with regard to political parties in opposition, a fixed election date removes the ability of the governing party to call a snap election when it is politically expedient and advantageous to do so in order to maximize the incumbency advantage. With this constitutional power to manipulate the election process, a corrupt, inefficient, inept, ineffective government could so manipulate the electoral process to remain in power, unless there are effective mechanisms in place to facilitate an early election, for example, via a no-confidence motion, which is difficult in a unicameral system like ours where the executive branch essentially controls the agenda, conduct, and votes in the legislature.

Incumbency is a powerful election tool that inherently gives a comparative advantage over the opposition. Therefore, being armed with the election date in the back pocket of the Prime Minister compounds that advantage. For that reason, the Commonwealth Secretariat Election Observer Mission expressed the view in its 2019 report that the instances of abuse of incumbency played a major part in the outcome of the election. This conclusion has been drawn from the several inferences including the absence of campaign finance regulations, misuse of the media, disparities between the capacities of the political parties to raise campaign funding from international sources, with the ruling party seemingly at a considerable advantage in doing so in addition to  the allegations that the ruling DLP party repeatedly misused the Government Information Service (GIS) and other  state resources for its own campaigning purposes. There were also allegations of breaches of the Civil Service Staff Regulations, where public servants were openly politically partisan and assisted in the distribution and provision of government services and goods to the electorate.

Recognizing the importance of having the ability to go to the people, who are the source of power in a real democracy, to recharge politically, a government may wish to return to the people when it has a slim majority or its popularity is significantly undermined by a bombshell or corruption scandal, even with a significant majority. However, a fixed date etched in law would effectively deny the chance to return to the people for a fresh mandate before the end of a five-year term. While the arguments advanced are by no means exhaustive, a change to a fixed election date would require a consensus in Parliament and disarm the Prime Minister of the convenient electoral weapon of simply calling elections at his wimps and fancies.

Those who are opposed to a fixed election date argue that it usually results in extended campaigning, sometimes starting immediately after the elections. The extended campaign usually takes a toll on the parties/candidates without huge financial resources, thus limiting the ability to get elected. However, this does not really to Dominica, where election campaign never stops after an election. The campaign continues, albeit with less intensity. Moreover, the same legislation, which establishes a fixed date for election could also establish a fixed campaign period leadingup to an election, during which certain election-related activities could be regulated such as campaign financing, holding of public meetings, etc.

By way of example, Dominica should hold its general election on:

    “the last Thursday of September in the fifth (5th) year after the previous general election or the fourth year, if the date of the previous election was before the last Thursday in September, except where there is a vote of no confidence in the government or where there is a vote explicitly in favour of an earlier election, which requires a qualified two thirds (2/3) of the total membership of the House of Representatives

 This would allow the new or continuing Prime Minister to be in office just about a month to lead us into National/Independent Day on 3rd November. Further, since this legislative amendment accompanies a two-term limit[2] for a Prime Minister, no Prime Minister would have that privilege for more than two five-year terms.  Moreover, with the above-fixed date, our election campaign would not have a negative impact on our major calendar festivals such as carnival, Independence Day, and associated activities like Creole Festival, Easter, and Christmas celebrations, contrary to what has happened over the last four (4) elections.  A Thursday is chosen as the following day is usually declared an unofficial holiday. Hence we can have a productive 3-day week with a long celebratory weekend. Farmers will have their usual Saturday market day, churchgoers will be able to worship on Sunday and we can get back to work on Monday- the majority happier than before while we consoled the sulky minority as one united people.

[1] ENHANCING OUR DEMOCRACY WITH TERM LIMITS – Dominica Patriot

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