Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Leave PM with election power

Published:Wednesday | December 2, 2015 | 12:00 AM

A unilateral constitutional power is held by the prime minister of the right to call elections at any time within the constitutional period. This right can be exercised by a prime minister to control dissidents who may upset the cohesiveness of the parliamentary majority and, as such, diminish the ability of government to act effectively.

The threat of a snap election by the prime minister prevents members from crossing the floor of Parliament for corrupt reasons, where majority control is marginal. The device, therefore, could be seen as a means of maintaining parliamentary stability, without which the parliamentary process could be disrupted and the business of the country unsettled.

The alternative would be an election date fixed by the Constitution, removing the power of the prime minister to decide the date. This raises an obvious weakness. In the present system, the life of a Parliament is as long, or as short, as the electorate makes it possible to continue. In the event of a government that incurs the wrath of the electorate to the extent that there is civil disobedience and a breakdown of the rule of law, which can only be dealt with by a prompt dissolution of Parliament and the holding of general elections, a fixed date would constitutionally prevent such action and civil disorder would leave an embattled government holding office until the due election date, or, ultimately, revolution would be the inevitable course to end the crisis.

This has been the experience of many countries that have followed the constitutional prescription of a fixed election date, as the record of many governments in this region reveals.

Additionally, if the date of the election was fixed, five years apart as required by the Constitution, in only the last year would attention be likely to be paid to the electorate, since there would be no possibility of an earlier election to vote out the negligent, lazy or 'don't-care' members of Parliament.

Because the present system allows constitutional change of government at any time up to five years, there is far less, if not only little, desire for parliamentarians to be out of touch and lacking in service to their constituents since an election could be called at any time and catch them napping.

Not only would parliamentarians be at risk, but the electoral system would lose attractiveness as a means of providing assistance for voters who would show their resentment of any ineffective system by not voting. The turnout of voters, which has already diminished to 53.17 per cent in the last general election, would shrink further, creating a most objectionable situation of government being elected by a minority of voters.

The Constitution Reform Commission, which was set up in mid-1990, took the decision to remove other unilateral powers from the prime minister, since it was undesirable to have a prime minister with too much power. New proposals were submitted and accepted to deal with the ability of the prime minister to select partisan or otherwise undesirable persons to be appointed by the governor general to national commissions.

The selection purpose must ensure that the process to select persons to serve on nationally sensitive commissions should be bipartisan so as to avoid any political imbalance. After some trial and error, changes were made in which the governor general would request one nominee each from the prime minister and leader of the Opposition for selection to positions of nationally sensitive commissions. This overrides the previous position where the governor general, after considering the prime minister's nominee, the Leader of the Opposition would be asked to agree or disagree with the nominee, not to submit any nominee of his own. The result was that the process was a fiction of democracy which has now been restructured to give the prime minister and leader of the Opposition an equally balanced participation in the process.

The unilateral powers of the prime minister thereby became a bilateral balance of power between prime minister and leader of the Opposition with the governor general making the final decision.

- Edward Seaga is a former prime minister of Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.