Consider This | Fixed election dates and term limits
“We shouldn’t have elections at the convenience of the PM, whose purpose is to advance the cause of a political party. It should be in the public interest.” – Sir Menzies Campbell, MP
Since majority rule in 1967, and for most of those 50 years, we have had three prime ministers, the lowest number of any English-speaking Caribbean country. Not counting the current occupant of that office, Sir Lynden Pindling held office for 25 years, Hubert Ingraham did so for 15 and Perry Christie brought up the rear with 10 years.
As our democracy matures, we often seek ways to improve our system of governance. There are some who have argued for fixed election dates, term limits for both the prime minister and members of Parliament, an independent boundaries commission and other reforms that they believe would improve democracy in The Bahamas.
Therefore, this week we would like to Consider this… Is it time to seriously consider fixed election dates and term limits for politicians?
Fixed election dates
Presently in The Bahamas, the prime minister sets election dates every five years. Conceptually, that system allows governments the freedom to time elections to coincide, hopefully, with a rise in their party’s popularity among voters.
A study published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy observed that, in most parliamentary democracies, the dates are statutorily set, although many allow for early elections under specified conditions. The study, at that time, noted, “There were only 12 of 40 comparable democracies that do not have some form of fixed dates”.
Before the enactment of the British Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011, which directed that elections be held every five years starting in 2015, the prime minister had the absolute power to call an election at will, by requesting the dissolution of Parliament by the Monarch.
Traditionally, in Great Britain, there was no fixed date for holding elections, but, since 1997, there was an unwritten agreement that the government should hold general elections to coincide with local government elections on the first Thursday of May.
Since the passage of the British Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the Queen no longer has the power to dissolve Parliament. This is now scheduled by the act to automatically happen 25 days before the election date. Under the provisions of the act, parliamentary elections must now be held every five years, on the first Thursday in May, so the next election is scheduled for May 7, 2020.
The conditions for when a snap election can be called were significantly reduced by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Parliament now has the power to call for an early election on only one of two conditions: via a motion of no confidence in the current government or via a vote that carries the agreement of two-thirds of all the members of Parliament.
In Canada, the federal government and several provinces have fixed-term elections, the former being held on the third Monday in October and every four years after that, starting on October 19, 2009.
The Canadian federal law and those of some provinces still allow elections to be held before the end of a term if the government loses the confidence of the House or if the governor general is advised to dissolve Parliament.
Norway and Switzerland are slightly different. In those countries, Parliament chooses the Cabinet, which serves a fixed term. The Swiss Parliament, unlike the Norwegian one, cannot remove the executive in mid-term by means of a no-confidence vote.
Although democratic presidential republics operate differently than Parliamentary democracies, Congressional elections in the United States, for example, are held every two years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November, with U.S presidential elections taking place on the same day every four years.
Advantages of fixed election dates
There are several advantages to adopting fixed election dates in The Bahamas.
First, fixed-term elections provide for election dates that could not be arbitrarily set by politicians. That would prevent the party in power from strategically choosing the election timing so that it advantages the governing party.
Secondly, a fixed election date removes the uncertainty about when elections will be held and allows all parties to plan ahead with absolute certainty about the date of general elections, thus levelling the playing field.
The third advantage is that, since everyone knows when the election is going to be held, the electorate would only have to endure an abbreviated campaign period. Long campaigns cost a lot of money, often preventing persons who cannot afford such protracted exercises to stand for office. A system in which election dates are known means that serious campaigning only takes place during those few months leading up to the election. This should minimize financial challenges for political parties and should also be less onerous and intrusive for the citizens.
Another pressing question is whether we should establish term limits for politicians in The Bahamas. A term limit is a legal restriction placed on the number of terms an officeholder can serve in a particular elected office. Term limits in presidential systems act as a method to curb the leader from becoming a “president for life” or remain for very long terms in office. Term limits offer an automatic check on consolidation of power and serve as an automatic purgative for disastrous leaders.
Term limits are also intended to protect democracies from becoming de facto dictatorships. Sometimes there is a limit on the number of terms an officeholder can serve, while, in other cases, the restrictions are merely on the number of consecutive terms that the elected officeholder can serve.
Term limits have a long history. Ancient Greece and ancient Rome, two early classic republics, imposed term limits on elected offices.
Today, Parliamentary democracies are less likely to employ term limits on their leaders, because such leaders rarely have a set term. Rather, they serve only as long as they enjoy the confidence of the Parliament and the electorate.
Many Parliaments can be dissolved for a snap election which means some parliamentarians’ terms can last for mere months, while others can continue for the established term.
Critics of term limits maintain that such limits can result in preventing the best person for a job from serving in it. This is generally more germane in smaller societies. Critics also argue that, sometimes, experience is more important than fresh perspectives and that the constant transition in leadership can stall legislation and public works projects before society benefits from them.
Proponents of term limits argue that they ensure a wider range of perspectives in government and prevent power from being consolidated in one person, which could easily occur due to the popularity or privilege of a particular individual.
We believe that there are no compelling reasons for adopting term limits in The Bahamas. As long as an individual enjoys the confidence of his party and the electorate, we should not undermine the considered will of the voters.
We believe that the time has come to stop paying lip service to some of the rudimentary reforms that can strengthen our communities and enhance our political culture. A fixed election date is an easy one that, at least intuitively, enjoys broad appeal among the electorate. Term limits will probably require a greater national discussion to determine whether this prospect is appropriate for our society.
However you feel about a fixed election day and term limits, the conversation should be started now and not avoided simply because we have always done something a certain way. Do not be part of the ‘if it’s not broken, why fix it’ mindset. Our political culture must evolve for the good of the nation’s future and must do it in a timely fashion, or it will be broken and, perhaps, it will be too late to fix.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., chartered accountants, forensic & litigation support services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.