With the recent unprecedented re-election of Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves for a fifth consecutive 5-year term in office, the debate throughout the Caribbean has intensified on the need to limit the term of office of Prime Ministers and perhaps all elected members of parliament. This is considered at the time when health workers in Dominica are fighting to maintain their status as non-contractual workers with unsure 2-year tenure of service while the politicians enjoy renewable five year contract with the citizens and in the United States- the world’s model of democracy, a selfish, rogue, narcissist is dangerously challenging an entire electoral system and refusing to step down as a failed one-term president.
The recent victory of Dr. Gonsalves in ST Vincent and the Grenadines should signal a warning to Dominicans that Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica is now more motivated than ever to stay at the helm of the Dominica Labour Party (DLP), irrespective of what the Constitution of the party may state, and continue to contest general elections in pursuit of his own fifth, sixth and seventh and more terms in office, if only to demonstrate to his regional Labour comrades who is the real electoral boss in the Caribbean as he continues to retire more opposition leaders.
Constitutionally, political leaders and Prime Ministers in the Caribbean are not restrained from extending their tenure in office beyond two terms. The Constitutions of political parties and our national Constitutions by and large allow political leaders and Prime Ministers to serve for as many terms as the people who support them allow. A Prime Minister may serve as many terms whether consecutively like PM Skerrit and PM Gonsalves or with a break in service as in the case of PM Keith Mitchell of Grenada, who served three terms from 1995 to 2008 and then was re-elected in 2013. He continues to serve a second term and is currently into his fifth term in office.
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica and Dr. Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines are examples of how the office of prime minister can be retained for multiple terms when the same political party is firmly in control of the electoral machinery, the resources of the state and the ‘myopic tribalism” of the population.
The debate has arisen from the view that longevity in office leads to abuse of authority, corruption, the suppression of challengers, both within political parties specifically, and the political system more generally. Such sentiments have been amplified in Dominica and St. Vincent, where the Prime Ministers operate as independent and/or superior figures to the political party to which they belong. They firmly believe that the success of their political party rests entirely on their personality and their ability to invoke the political spirits of their supporters. But, they remain well aware that while the appeal of a leader of a political party could be the deciding factor in whether a party wins an election or not, the election of the leader in one constituency does not necessarily deliver the prime ministership nor a government. In our representative parliamentary system, a party is victorious by winning the majority of electoral constituencies from which the party’s leader emerges as Prime Minister and he is then authorized to form a Government. However, the personal influence and stature of these long serving Prime Ministers are so dominant in the socio-economic-political sphere that their continued active participation in politics is often necessary to secure a victory for their party.
While the public desire for term limits on the tenure of a Prime Minister remains very high, there are many who argue against any restriction given the various ways in which a Prime Minister may be legally removed from office. They argue that 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 holder of the office wanted to remain as the Prime Minister, he/she could not do so once the majority of elected parliamentary representatives would withdrawstheir support in favour of someone else. The argument is also made that if the majority of Members of Parliament from the governing and Opposition parties were to express, by a vote, a lack of confidence in the Prime Minister, he/she could be removed from office. There would be two options; either resign as Prime Minister and hand over to an elected representative favoured by the majority in Parliament, or dissolve the Parliament and call a fresh general election. Either way, that specific term of office as prime minister would end. Furthermore, they argue that a PrimeMinister could be removed from office by the will of the people at a general election. If the majority of the electorate does not support the political party in office and chooses another party to govern, the term of the incumbent Prime Minister ends automatically and the leader of the newly elected party becomes the new Prime Minister. Nevertheless, it is clear that throughout the Commonwealth, primarily outside the Caribbean, very few prime ministers have served beyond three terms.
This issue has always been of paramount concern to the United Workers Party /Team Dominica and has always been at the top of the party’s agenda as one measure to usher in good governance in the country. The UWP declared its intentions 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 time in office for any Prime Minister to two 5-year terms in addition to establishing a fixed date for general elections every five years.
In 2015, the Team Unity Coalition Government of St. Kitts indicated that it would table legislation to amend the Constitution of St Christopher and Nevis. It later introduced the Tenure of Office of Prime Minister (Amendment) Bill, 2019. The main objective of the Bill was said to make an amendment of Section 52 (2) of the Constitution of St Kitts and Nevis with the amendment that “a Representative shall not hold office as Prime Minister for more than two terms, whether or not served consecutively.” Under the proposed Bill, “A person who is appointed Prime Minister under the Constitution shall, subject to subsection (2) of this section, hold office for a term of five years” and a person shall not be appointed to hold office as Prime Minister for more than two terms as prescribed by the section.
Prime Minister, Dr. Timothy Harris expressed the view that the legislation to impose two- term limits on anyone holding the position of Prime Minister in his country may become a model which other countries in the Caribbean should explore. He stated, “As more countries see how it works and understand the imperative for a new approach to governance, that more and more, this is going to become a model which other countries are going to explore. We think it is a good matter for St Kitts and Nevis and certainly the countries within the region who would want to follow pattern, we will encourage that…as his government believes that it was necessary to bring new talents to the fore to deal with issues of succession planning which have been difficult for political parties….Usually what happens is that you have a leader continuing office, usually by the time he is rejected by the people, there is no successor immediately that would come and that hemorrhages political parties and organization …we believe that we have a bright pool of young people who are emerging and if the succession issue is handled, we will always have a fine cadre of people…….More than that it broadens the quality of democracy where leaders know that they are going to be held accountable, where leaders more early, begin to think about their legacy. In our case we are proposing two terms…”
According to Dr. Harris a two term limit in respect to the Presidency in Guyana had contributed “to the level and the quality of democracy,” which is highly debatable considering that the two termed President has simply showed up as the deputy President in the newly elected government as a result of an CCJ ruling that debarred him from serving another term in office as President while he effectively controls the power behind the scenes. Dr. Harris argued, however, that this is what democracy needed for its enhancement, taking it to the new level and for bringing more people forward into service. He considered the decision “to be an important disciplining mechanism for effective succession planning, and to ensure that by and large in the democracy, people feel that they will have opportunities to change leadership periodically, bring new ones with whom they are more comfortable.”
The main opposition St Kitts and Nevis Labour Party (SKNLP), however, described the proposed Bill as mere window shopping and did not support it. Given that the Bill required two-thirds majority to be passed in Parliament, which the government did not have at time, the Opposition advised the Prime Minister to remove the legislation from the Order Paper.
The Leader of the Opposition United Workers Party (UWP) in Dominica, however, gave an enthusiastic ‘thumbs up’ to the government of St. Kitts for introducing the Bill to the House, Mr. Linton applauded the move by Team Unity of St. Kitts and Nevis as both Team Unity in St. Kitts and United Workers Party/ Team Dominica had the very platform in the campaign for elections. He explained that Team Unity won its election and it is therefore in a position to implement the legislation (perhaps unaware that the government required a 2/3 majority, which it did not have), but since the UWP did not win election it was not in a position to do so. He, however, indicated that this was very necessary as “this business of one man continuing in office as though wisdom resides in a single head, we don’t support it and we have set clearly that we will set two term limits on the holding of the office Prime Minister when we become the government of Dominica.”
But the Roosevelt Skerrit lead government of Dominica would have none of it. The DLP leadership has never been in a mood to encourage any discussion on the subject of restriction of tenure for the Prime Minister nor of any elected members of parliament. The then Justice Minister, Rayburn Blackmoore, expressed doubt that there should be any limit on the amount of time persons be allowed to spend as elected representatives in parliament or to serve as Prime Minister or a member of Parliament. Blackmoore expressed the view that voters should be allowed to elect persons for as long as they feel that those elected meet their expectations- supposedly that includes until such time that PM Skerrit decides that time is up as he has been so advised. He stated, “People have a right to decide who they want to represent them. And, as long as the person who is running for re-election has performed, and has been able to meet their expectations, and has been able to serve his constituency well, I think it is an added plus to the whole democratic process…I think that you should never deprive people of the right to vote for a candidate of their choice…While the idea of a term limit on an individual in the office of Prime Minister is a “useful argument,” the idea must be revised for smaller societies with “less talent, [and] less diversity.”Essentially, the argument is that term limits are effectively set by the electorate, simply by voting out unpopular parties and their leaders. The best safeguards against abuse of office by Prime Ministers are the will of the people at a general election and the good sense of the holders of the office, who should resolve to remain legitimately in it only for as long as it’s clear that the people want them and continue to elect them through elections-whether or not these elections are free and fair.
These arguments are in line with the Communist Party of China, which has approved the removal of the two-term limit on the presidency, which has effectively allowed the current President, Xi Jinping to remain in power for life. China had imposed a two-term limit on its president in the 1990s. But President Xi, who would have been due to step down in 2023, defied the tradition of presenting a potential successor during Communist Party Congress. Constitutional changes were made at annual sitting of parliament in 2018 by the National People’s Congress, a vote that was widely regarded as a rubber-stamping exercise of the powerful President, who has instead, consolidated his political power as the party voted to enshrine his name and political ideology in the party’s constitution – elevating his status to the level of its founder, Chairman Mao.
Lest we forget, in May 2019, a referendum on a controversial constitutional reform aimed at keeping the 54-year-old President of Berundi, Pierre Nkurunziza in power until at least 2034 or even for life was successfully upheld. President Nkurunziza ruled the country since 2005 and had declared himself as “supreme eternal leader,” warning that anyone who tried to prevent the referendum would have to “deal with God.” Amidst much protest by the people and challenges by the Burundian human rights activists, the amendment to the constitution was surprisingly approved by over 70% of votes. In keeping with the desire of the people, President Nkurunziza announced that he would not contest the next general elections, which paved the way for the return of the opposition alliance from exile in Belgium to participate in the elections for the first time since 2005. General elections were held in Burundi on 20 May 2020 to elect both the president and the National Assembly and Évariste Ndayishimiye of the ruling CNDD–FDD was elected president with 71% of the vote. In the National Assembly elections, the ruling party won 72 of the 100 elected seats.
In the next segment, we shall examine the general pros and cons of Term Limits.