Bert Samuels, Guest Columnist
"The King can do no wrong" is a legal maxim which is rooted in the fact that a king reigns without the possibility of challenge to his office. Historically, this inevitably gave rise to the imposition of the ultimate penalty of death for the offence of treason for the mere challenge to the king's office. Modern democracies have sought to remove this concept, and we are now led by a government selected by the people, with the possibility of that very government being removed in elections by the people. This idea has been extended in some modern states to limiting the leader of the governing party to two terms only.
In our parliamentary democracy, the leader of the opposition is 'the prime minister in waiting', so to speak. We do not elect our prime minister; he emerges following on national elections or the resignation of a sitting prime minister ahead of elections as a consequence of being the leader of his own opposition party. His only qualification is that he must be an elected member of parliament. Based on this anomalous constitutional arrangement - where our prime minister wields such enormous power as a result of being the head of the party, where some have convincingly argued that what we inherit every five years is an unelected 'dictator' - the current challenge to Jamaica's opposition party leader ought to be a matter of national interest.
By way of example, there are a number of other constitutional unelected offices from the three arms of government which have been given security of tenure, almost precluding challenge from any quarter. The selection of these constitutionally protected functionaries lies solely in the hands of the 'dictator' I alluded to above. The governor general, the chief justice, supreme court judges, the DPP, the attorney general, to name a few, once selected by our prime minister, are there 'forever'. There is a very compelling school of thought that we should be making these powerful functionaries 'elected officials', or at a minimum, subject their appointments to rigorous public hearings prior to their installation.
The Upper House itself is an unelected House. It has all-powerful lawmaking functions. This House has its majority selected by the said all-powerful unelected prime minister. Isn't it about time that the members of that House face the electorate for whom and on behalf of whom they make laws? Added to this fact, some of these handpicked members sit in our Cabinet, the principal executive arm of government!
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. In Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Eric Williams is one of our most extreme regional examples of a prime minister going unchallenged for 25 years - a tenure marked by trade union conflict and civil unrest from the Black Power movement. More recently, Syria has had its own fallout as a result of a dictator holding on to power.
A mature democracy must encourage challenges to political office. Hillary Clinton - notwithstanding her uncharitable remarks during the Democratic Party nomination race - was thereafter appointed secretary of state by the US president. In Jamaica, the current minister of finance - occupying the most important Cabinet office - was a fierce contestant of the prime minister for party leadership when their party was out of power.
The strongest and most-qualified leader emerges where there is a clean-fought contest for leadership. It is in the national interest that the automatic transition from party leader to prime minister is allowed to be challenged so that we get the leader we deserve. This is most important in a system of government where we are not allowed to choose our prime minister. It is qualified party delegates, and not even the broader party supporters who, in effect, 'select' our prime minister!
The current debate in the opposition ought, therefore, to be a matter of great public importance and hence not solely the purview of the 'Government-in-waiting', to be conducted beyond its closed doors.
Has the time come for us to demand that our out-of-government political parties host mandatory annual elections for the selection of their (our) leader/prime minister-in-waiting?
Bert Samuels is an attorney. Send feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org