Term limits and fixed election dates make no sense

Dear Editor,

I have long argued that those advocating fixed election dates and term limits on the office of prime minister really do not have a clue about the very basics of what Westminster democracy is and how it operates. Rather, they are simply taking cues from superficially corresponding elements of a fundamentally different U.S. system.

This is evident firstly because the supposed dangers that both these ‘solutions’ are designed to address do not actually exist and, secondly, because the measures themselves will, in many ways, have the reverse effect, if their intention is to promote a more naturally flowing and accountable democracy.

What is also evident in their apparent failure to understand is that, constitutionally and practically, the closest corresponding role to a prime minister in the U.S. system (which seems to transfix them) is not the president, but the speaker of the House of Representatives. He or she is not a directly elected official, but simply the person who leads the biggest lobby in the legislative arm of government, from which all executive power flows. So how can it make sense to subject him or her to term limits?

All that these restrictions would do is reduce the flexibility of the Westminster system, which is precisely what makes it work so much better than the U.S. system and obviates the need for as many checks and balances.

Unlike in the U.S., the executive arm of our government could fall or change composition at any moment, reflecting events in the country. Rather than supporting such sharp accountability, a constitutionally fixed election date would actually cement a Bahamian prime minister into a guaranteed tenure that he does not at present enjoy.

Should, for instance, the present leadership of the FNM commit acts in office that sufficiently alienate the Bahamian public, a backbench revolt could lead to the replacement of the current prime minister. This is exactly what transpired two years ago when Dr. Minnis was removed by his colleagues as leader of the opposition. In the event of it happening when his party is in government, the result would be the fall of his administration.

In such an event, the next move would be a general election, in order to permit the new political dispensation to seek a democratic mandate. How would that work with a fixed election date? Would the electorate and parliament simply be told that they have no choice but to await the expiry of the term of a lame duck executive?

Likewise, would Bahamian democracy be served by the constitution telling a party that, because it won more than two consecutive elections, it must choose a new leader? What if that is not what the electorate wants?

Rather than fixing anything, these measures would have the effect of reducing democracy and lessening the general flexibility of our governing structures in the face of unknown eventualities. It is in this flexibility that the Westminster system has shown itself so much better than all its rivals.

Indeed, allowing for cultural and historical differences, any comparison between the Westminster system and its U.S. counterpart confirms the superiority of the former in terms of democratic responsiveness, eliminating demagoguery and reducing stalemate (look at what is happening now in the U.S., for heaven’s sake!)

Latin America versus the Anglophone Caribbean speaks for itself, but comparing the histories of Britain and the U.S. (two culturally similar societies that industrialized at around the same time) the comparison becomes even starker.

The big questions facing 19th century Britain (the country’s most transformative century until maybe this one) were (ostensibly) the repeal of the Corn Laws and (more fundamentally) industrialization. These questions tore the Tory Party apart (as Brexit seems to be doing today) but were ultimately resolved by a Westminster system that was able to absorb the shifting political tectonics without damaging the country. The result was the formation of a new coalition (Gladstone’s Liberal Party), which dominated Britain for the remainder of the century.

By comparison, the big question facing the U.S. in the 19th century (also its most transformative, until maybe this one) was the clash between the North and the South over (ostensibly) slavery and (more fundamentally) industrialization. A half century of efforts, culminating in the Missouri Compromise of 1850, failed to resolve the political crisis. The famous ‘checks and balances’ led only to stalemate and standoff. In the end, lacking the flexibility of Westminster, the country split into two and fought a civil war that killed more Americans than all the country’s subsequent international wars combined.

Whatever strengths the U.S. undoubtedly has as a society, its political system is not among them. Across Latin America are examples of countries that followed the American model, perhaps in the wrongheaded expectation that it would help them to emulate some of their northern neighbor’s more unqualified successes in other fields.

By contrast, we are lucky indeed to have inherited the Westminster system. But by limiting its flexibility and adding artificial constitutional constraints, we will be damaging it beyond recognition and limiting its ingenious and long-evolving effectiveness.

– Andrew Allen

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