Editorials

Fixed-term Parliaments and fixed-date general elections

The United States has had a national election date since 1792 for reasons connected to harvesting of crops as much as anything else. A fixed date for the election of the president was further codified in 1845 following the development of the Morse electric telegraph which threatened to influence the voting in different time zones across the country.

Some politicians in countries that follow the Westminster tradition of government believe a fixed date election is preferable to that of their own which permits a prime minister to call an early election at any time of his choosing. To bolster their argument, they cite increased certainty about the term of a government which removes the partisan advantage of an incumbent government in selecting general election dates.

A fixed-term parliament may, however, prove to be inconvenient due to unforeseen circumstances. In fact, early elections may sometimes be to the overall best interest of a country, such as when a government with a small majority needs to establish a clear majority. This was done by the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) government in 1968 and by the Free National Movement (FNM) in 1997.

For almost two decades now, parliaments in several Commonwealth countries, including the mother of Commonwealth Parliaments in Great Britain, have struggled with the pros and cons of fixed-term parliaments and fixed-date general elections.

Canada adopted a fixed-date election law, with exceptions in 2007 and then promptly used the exceptions to hold a general election in September 2008 and again in May 2011.

In Australia, state and local government elections are generally held on fixed dates established in law. However, national general elections are not constricted by a fixed election date.

The United Kingdom adopted a Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011. That act contains exceptions like those in the Canadian law that permit early elections under certain circumstances.

The adoption of the law in the UK was unhelpful during the political party conflicts and infighting surrounding BREXIT. The House of Commons voted to permit an early election in June 2017 but later refused three separate requests from the prime minister for an early election in 2019. Then, that same Parliament passed a new law, the Early Parliamentary General Election Act, 2019, permitting an early election!

Late last year, the House of Commons agreed to a proposal to appoint a joint committee to review the 2011 act, which is clearly not serving its purpose.

In opposition, the FNM party promised fixed-date elections. In office the same has not been provided for.

Instead, all indications are that the government is proposing to call a snap election notwithstanding firstly, the continuing pandemic, secondly, the rules put in place by the prime minister and supported by the chief medical officer, to contain and mitigate against the spread of the disease and finally, the requirements of the Broadcasting Rules.

The opposition has joined the government in campaign mode.

For the past four parliamentary terms, The Bahamas has had a general election every five years in May – May 2, 2002; May 2, 2007; May 7, 2012 and May 10, 2017.

If the government is serious about fixed-date elections then the prime minister might simply abide by the Broadcasting Rules, discontinue his party’s campaign commercials and announce that the next election will be held during the fist two or three weeks of May 2022, five years after the last general election. That would bring an end to the increased unhealthy campaigning by both major political parties in violation of health safety protocols but clearly in anticipation of a snap election.

We recommend that the government comply with or revoke, repeal and replace the Broadcasting Rules for the conduct of fair elections agreed by the FNM and the PLP in 1992.

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