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Caribbean democracy demands constitutional change

Sir Ronald Sanders

Sunday, June 10, 2018

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The leader of the Opposition is assigned important roles in the constitutions of all Commonwealth Caribbean countries. The roles stand at the heart of the democratic values to which the peoples of Commonwealth Caribbean adhere. That is why provision should be made in the constitutions of all Commonwealth Caribbean countries for a seat to be reserved for the position of leader of the Opposition if one political party, or its candidates, win all the seats in the House of Representatives at general elections.

The distinction between Commonwealth Caribbean countries and Caribbean Community (Caricom) countries is made here because Caricom embraces Haiti and Suriname, whose systems are very different from that of Commonwealth Caribbean countries, which is rooted in the parliamentary system adopted from Britain at their independence.

In the constitutions of Commonwealth Caribbean countries it is provided that the leader of the Opposition must be consulted on many, if not all of the following appointments: the chancellor of the judiciary; the chief justice; the chairpersons of the Police Service Commission, the Public Service Appeals Board, the Judicial and Legal Services Commission, and the Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

The obligation of the head of government to consult with the leader of the Opposition is vital to the safeguarding of political and civil rights and to upholding democratic principles on which the broad interest of any society depends.

In circumstances where there is no leader of the Opposition in Parliament, the head of the Government has no restraint on such appointments, and even the most benevolent leaders could be tempted to appoint individuals favourable to their political party. Therefore, it is clearly important to each Caribbean nation that there should always be a leader of the Opposition in Parliament.

Beyond these crucial considerations, the leader of the Opposition is also responsible for nominating an allocated number of members to the second parliamentary chamber, the Senate, where one exists. And, very substantially, the leader of the Opposition also carries out the major role of chairman of the Public Accounts Committee that reviews government spending and holds it answerable.

Before going any further, two salient facts should be mentioned.

First, the leader of an Opposition political party is not the leader of the Opposition. The latter is a post which is defined in the constitution and to which precise obligations are assigned, as described earlier in this commentary. This is why, for instance, neither of the leaders of Opposition parties in Antigua and Barbuda is the leader of the Opposition. The post of leader of the Opposition fell to the one candidate of the main political party that won a seat in the Parliament, because the leaders of the two parties failed to win the seats they contested.

Second, in Guyana, where the system of general elections is by proportional representation, there can be no time that Parliament would be bereft of a leader of the Opposition, except in the unlikely event that only one political party contests the elections. Proportional representation is precisely that — representation in proportion to the number of votes received. So, however small the number of votes a political party might receive, it will be assured of parliamentary representation and qualification for the post of leader of the Opposition.

The reference to proportional representation is not a recommendation for its implementation across Commonwealth Caribbean countries. Having said that, it is accurate that the electorate in the region is increasingly voting for a political party, and not for a candidate. Indeed, in the three most recent general elections in Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, and Barbados, it was evident that the electorate did not vote for individual candidates but for the party they felt would deliver better economic stewardship of their national affairs.

This observation applies to the current leader of the Opposition in Barbados, Bishop Joseph Atherley, who had failed to win a seat in the previous two general elections, and did so at the May 24 General Election only because of a significant swing to the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) on whose ticket he contested the parliamentary seat that he won.

On the basis that the present first-past-the-post system of constituency general elections will continue in the Commonwealth Caribbean countries in which it is now present, constitutional measures have to be put in place for an automatic leader of the Opposition to be appointed from the party that secures the second-highest number of votes across the country, even though it lost every parliamentary seat.

Abandoning allegiance to the party on whose ticket a representative is elected after an election should also be prohibited, since it leads to maverick behaviour that is not in any country's interest.

If constitutional change is not made, the wholly inadequate development — as happened in Barbados — would recur. In Barbados, Bishop Atherley decided to withdraw allegiance to the BLP, on whose ticket he contested, and to become a representative in Opposition. That allowed for his appointment as leader of the Opposition in Parliament. And, while this tactic allows for the functions of the office to be carried out, it is not reflective of the will of the second-largest number of people who voted for the Democratic Labour Party, nor of those who voted for him. It also entrusts great power to one man with no political organisation that is accountable to a national electorate.

In this defective system, if two more disgruntled individuals were to follow Atherley's example in withdrawing allegiance to the BLP, but declaring to the governor general that the two of them, as the majority in Opposition, support one of themselves as leader of the Opposition, Bishop Atherley's tenure would end, and one of them would replace him. This is hardly a system that mirrors the wishes of the total electorate or serves the country well.

To ensure against this situation, and the one in Grenada in which because one party won all the parliamentary seats there is no leader of the Opposition carrying out the vital functions of the post, Commonwealth Caribbean countries should amend their constitutions to provide that, in the event of one party winning all the seats, the political party that gains the second-highest number of votes shall be entitled to one parliamentary seat, and thereby, the post of leader of the Opposition.

In the case of Barbados, its ballot papers at election will also have to be amended to link candidates to the political parties on whose ticket they contest the elections.

The preservation and protection of democracy and political rights demand constitutional amendment.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's ambassador to the US, Organization of American States, and high commissioner to Canada; an international affairs consultant; as well as senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He previously served as ambassador to the European Union and the World Trade Organization and as high commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own. For responses and to view previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com.

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