The Bahamas: A constitutional dictatorship?
We have an anachronistic, colonial governance system that is no longer suitable for the needs of our developing nation in this 21st century. We inherited this Westminster system of governance from the British. So far, our political leadership has not thought it good to change the system. One of the weaknesses of the Westminster parliamentary system of government is the lack of strong separation of powers between the legislature and executive. In The Bahamas most of the governing party’s members of Parliament are in the cabinet (the executive). Most of these MPs, including the backbenchers, are not, it seems, independent thinkers or operatives. This creates an environment in which the executive (the cabinet and more specifically the prime minister) is often left unchecked in any substantial manner. While checks and balances are important for honest governance, a government must be able to effectively and swiftly take action on behalf of the people, for better or worse. The current political gridlock in America between the congress and President Barack Obama underscores a drawback to presidential governance systems that traditionally have stronger institutional separation between the legislature and the executive.
Today, due to our proximity to the U.S. and our own political evolution, Bahamian elections are treated as essentially choosing between two or more party leaders. Hence, many Bahamian voters perceive and treat general elections as presidential races between the leaders of political parties and not so much as votes for particular members of Parliament. However, our system is not a presidential system. If an individual wants to be prime minister, realistically, that person will have to be the leader of a major political party. Historically this has been the only way to ensure the loyalty of a majority of the members in the House of Assembly. However, it is often difficult for newcomers and outsiders to become the leader of a major party. This is so because delegates that may be staunch supporters of the established party leadership often choose party leadership.
Here are a few suggestions to reform our antiquated governing system and make it more efficient, transparent and to reduce the concentration of power in the prime minister. Firstly, our parliamentary system must be reformed in favor of a presidential one. This should make it easier for newcomers and outsiders to have a better chance to successfully run for prime minister/president without having to build up a substantial amount of support within a political party or command the loyalty of a certain number of MPs. At the same time, this would allow Bahamians to directly choose the political leader of the country. Our elections often boil down to a de facto race between the leaders of our political parties. Changing to some form of presidential system would eliminate the indirect method we use to “choose” our prime minister. Secondly, we should implement term limits as prime minister to two terms consecutively or cumulatively. Some critics also recommend that there should be similar term limits for members of Parliament to reduce the number of career politicians – not a bad idea at all.
Reforming our campaign finance laws to make the financing process more transparent, fair, and reduce the influence of corporations and rich people should also make our system more democratic and less beholden to special interests, including, for example, limits on the amount of money persons and entities can donate to a campaign. Ideally, our general elections should be funded completely from the public treasury. In addition, a properly functioning ombudsperson’s office must be formulated to receive and investigate complaints against the government.
The ombudsperson’s office in conjunction with a well equipped and fearless public defender’s office should be empowered to take legal action to protect the interests and rights of citizens, residents and others. Probably the most important factor in reducing the concentrated power in the prime minister under our current governance model involves the election of strong, independent minded cabinet ministers and backbenchers. The prime minister is not the supreme leader as some may suggest or insinuate. Instead, he or she is the first among equals and should conduct him or herself accordingly. If we are able to implement some or all of these non-exhaustive suggestions, we can go a long way in reducing the extraordinary power wielded by the prime minister.
•Rishard Cooper is a Bahamian international corporate attorney. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.