Wed | Apr 1, 2020

Orrette Fisher | Fixed vs floating election dates

Published:Sunday | February 16, 2020 | 12:21 AM

There are a number of issues that become topical once an election is in the air. Included in the list is the issue of a fixed election date. The current law allows the sitting prime minister to call an election at any time within the administration’s term in office.

In Jamaica, there is a five-year term, and elections must be constitutionally held within five years and three months of the date of the last election. In other words, the life of an administration may be extended to a maximum of three months beyond the five-year term.

JAMAICA’S REALITY

Every individual who served as prime minister in Jamaica, and who was afforded the opportunity of calling an election, seemed to have revelled in the occasion. The prime minister often toys 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 the colonial past. Admittedly, some countries have moved away from it and to a fixed election date. Others have opted for a period within which the election must be held.

So are there really any benefits to the people in deciding to move from one system to the next. In other words, does it really matter? Are there any real advantages to be had?

PROS AND CONS OF A FIXED ELECTION DATE

Those in favour of a fixed election date often put forward the argument that it provides a level of certainty to businesses, thus enhancing the ability to plan. Conceivably, it also reduces the frequency of elections as well as the associated costs to tax payers. It is possible that three elections could be held within a 10-year span if ruling administrations opted to call elections approximately three years into a five-year term. With a fixed election date, two elections would be held within the 10-year period.

Of most significance, especially to parties in opposition, is that it removes the ability of the governing party to call the election when it is politically expedient to do so in order to give itself an advantage.

Those opposed to a fixed election date point to the fact that it usually results in extended campaigning, sometimes starting immediately after the elections, as currently obtains in the United States. The extended campaign usually takes a toll on the parties/candidates without huge financial resources, thus limiting the ability to get elected. This, presumably, could be countered by establishing, in law, a fixed campaign period.

With a fixed election date, an ineffective government could remain in power unless there were mechanisms in place to facilitate an early election, for example, via a no-confidence motion.

The ability to go to the people is a fundamental feature of the Westminster model, and so a government with a very slim majority, which is unable to function effectively due to the strength of the opposition, would effectively be denied the chance to return to the people for a fresh mandate before the end of the five-year term.

While the arguments advanced are by no means exhaustive, a change to a fixed election date would require a huge consensus in Parliament as implicit in the Constitution is the right of the prime minister to call elections at his discretion.

SETTING DATES FOR BY-ELECTIONS

Of similar interest is the calling of by-elections to fill vacancies arising from the retirement or death of a candidate whether at the parliamentary or local government level. Historically, vacancies were not filled for months or years, particularly for the local government elections. The surprising thing is that the local governance statute provides for a fixed timeframe within which a vacancy should be filled (within three months of it being entered into the minutes of the council) as well as the fact that a by-election should not be called if it occurs within the year that the local government election is due. This is surprising since no such provision exists for the parliamentary election.

Admittedly, the willingness to fill vacancies has improved in recent years with less of a delay, with the argument being advanced that constituents should not be left without representation for an extended period. If this is so, then the provision should be made in law for parliamentary vacancies to be filled within a given time period of it occurring, for example, six months or 180 days.

ROLE OF THE ELECTORAL COMMISSION OF JAMAICA

In addition, consideration should be given to include in the legislation a time period within which a vacancy will not be filled based on the proximity to the due date of the general election. This will ensure that vacancies are not filled only when it is expedient to do so and left to languish if it is not.

The role of the Electoral Commission Of Jamaica (ECJ) has been discussed on several occasions. Interested citizens have voiced their opinions to the body. In fact, a draft report was presented to the commission for its review and subsequent submission to Parliament. This was not done.

It is quite possible that the ECJ has since taken the view that it doesn’t have the jurisdiction. Based on its mandate, however, such a recommendation should come from the ECJ, the body charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the country’s democracy.

- Orrette Fisher is an election-management consultant and former director of elections. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com