Thursday, Jul 9, 2020
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Leave well enough alone – no term limits

Dear Editor,

Must we copy-cat the United States on everything they do, even the dumb stuff? The government wants to tinker with the constitution by imitating the American practice of limiting their president to two terms in office.

Term limits is a relatively new spanner in the democratic tool-box for the Americans. For the first 175 years of their existence the American republic stood without a threat to the presidency because there were no term limits.

Since declaring independence from Britain, the Americans flirted with the notion of holding their president to just two terms but the feeling was not universal. Some delegates to their constitutional convention thought the president deserved a lifetime appointment. Of course, life expectancy was shorter back then but that idea sounded too much like the European monarchies they abhorred.

It wasn’t until Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, came along in the 1930s and just kept on winning presidential elections that the Republicans in Congress pushed through the 22nd Amendment to their constitution which limited the president to two four-year terms. Roosevelt died when he was in his fourth duly elected term.

The U.S. is a constitutional republic with an executive branch headed by a president. The president is a stranger in their legislature and doesn’t have to be of the same party as the majority in Congress.

Contrary to the false view that the president is directly elected by Americans, Donald Trump’s election in 2016 proved the undemocratic shortcomings of their system. Their electoral college has the final say and it was designed so that only “qualified citizens” get to choose the president. This was a grand compromise, the best of many other elitist options.

The American system is also skewed in favor of less populous states. In 50 states the people vote for electors who go through the process of deciding who becomes president. Amass the most electors and you can ignore the will of the majority of the people.

Despite fighting a war to separate from Britain, the founding fathers in the U.S. were leery of democracy. They feared that in letting ordinary people decide their leaders they could end up with what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority”.

Writing in the “Federalist Papers” Caribbean-born Alexander Hamilton said that the U.S. constitution was designed to ensure “that the office of president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications”. Don’t laugh. You can’t make this stuff up.

Their electoral college was designed to preserve “the sense of the people”, not the “will of the people”. And at the same time, it was to ensure that the president is chosen “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which are proper to govern their choice”.

While we try to put that in a Trumpian context, we must not forget that as the Americans were grappling with republicanism in 1776, the parliamentary system had been evolving in Europe since 1188 but had not yet reached maturity in Great Britain where the king still exercised considerable authority. It is the predominant system of democratic governance in the world today. Very few countries have term limits.

The Westminster model empowers the executive branch with a legitimacy that is derived from its ability to command the confidence of the legislative branch. The entire executive, including the prime minister, is accountable to Parliament.

In the American system, the president heads the executive branch and is also head of state. They use something called checks and balances which forces the three branches to compete for power, often disastrously. This has given them the strange anomaly called the “government shut down”.

In our system if the government cannot pass a budget, that government falls and a new election must be called. The government does not shut down because its members fail to do their job.

The pure genius of our system rests on the fact that while the government is given a five-year term, it must perpetually account to the people or risk being dismissed at any time.

The appointment of a prime minister is exclusively a prerogative exercised by the Queen, via her governor general, acting in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. The Parliament doesn’t vote on who becomes prime minister but parliament can at any time vote to defeat the government with a motion of no confidence in that prime minister; term limited by the people’s representatives.

The constitution provides that the governor general appoint as prime minister the person who is the leader of the party with the majority in the House of Assembly. In the event there is no such undisputed leader, the constitution makes further provisions for the governor general to exercise her judgment.

Some people take issue with the fact that the public at large doesn’t get to decide who leads the political parties. In our system, everyone is free to join a political party and to participate in the party process of selecting a leader.

Every tribe, organization or political party needs a leader. In the name of reform, we must not now throw out the baby with the bathwater. Limiting prime ministers to two terms in office would be to reject the collective wisdom and will of the voters. It could also result in the removal of a competent prime minister at an inconvenient time or a time of national crisis.

We can discuss openness and transparency in political parties. We can initiate campaign finance reform and even seek to limit the influence of mega-donors and corporate interests on parties. But the constitution should not dictate to political parties who their leaders should be and for how long they should serve.

The ultimate limiter of the time in office of a prime minister should be the voters: first of all his constituency and then the national electorate, not some knee-jerk statute invented to subvert the will of the people. Bahamians have demonstrated that they know exactly what to do when they are tired of a particular party or prime minister.

Even some Americans regret their term limits. Absent limits, there is a good chance today they would be in Barack Obama’s third term in office, not the first term of Donald Trump.

Term limits are a bad idea that would be superfluous in our system. While the life of our Parliament may run for five years, a prime minister can lose his job at any time.

Margaret Thatcher went to a European Union meeting in 1990 as the “iron lady prime minister” of the U.K., but got a call in her hotel room that same night to say that she had lost the confidence of the members of her party in the House. She went back to England and offered the Queen her resignation to avoid being fired.

The government should leave well enough alone. Fixed-date elections and even proportional representation are theories that could be studied and debated, but hands off term limits.

 

– The Graduate

 

 

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