Fixed Date For Elections – Constitutional Commission Report

Fixed-Date-For-ElectionsThe Constitutional Reform, Commission has favoured the present first past the post system (FPTP) for elections in St Lucia along with a fixed date for elections, among other recommendations aimed at reforming the electoral system.

We continue today with a look at Chapter 5 of the Commission’s report:

Choice of an Electoral System
In keeping with the pre-independence electoral environment, the 1978 Independence Constitution of Saint Lucia accepted the plurality First-Past-the-Post system (FPTP) as the effective electoral system of the country. Combined, the Constitution of Saint Lucia and the Elections Act50 make it clear that Saint Lucia operates a single member constituency system for election purposes.

Section 30 (1) of the Constitution which speaks to the composition of the House of Assembly clearly states that:

“The House shall consist of such number of members as corresponds with the number of constituencies for the time being established in accordance with the provisions of section 58 of this Constitution, who shall be elected in accordance with the provisions of section 33 of this Constitution.”

Section 33 (1) of the Constitution states:

“Each of the constituencies established in accordance with the provision of section 58 of this Constitution shall return one member to the House who shall be directly elected in such manner as may, subject to the provisions of this Constitution, be prescribed by or under any law.”

Further, Section 66 (7) of the Elections Act states that:

“The candidate who, on such final count of the votes, is found to have the largest number of votes, shall then be declared elected in writing and a copy of such declaration shall be delivered to each candidate or his or her agent, if present at the final count of the votes, or, if any candidate is neither present nor represented thereat, shall be transmitted to such candidate by registered post.”

In appraising the performance of the system currently in place in Saint Lucia, the Commission acknowledged the historical tendency of the model to restrain and therefore limit the number of political parties that have acquired seats in the elected House of Assembly. Therefore the Commission agreed with the view that:

“The most serious and fundamental defect in the First Past The Post system is that it regularly and repeatedly fails to create a parliament in which the image of the feelings of the nation are truly reflected. There is the general tendency to exaggerate the representativeness of the largest party and to reduce that of the smaller ones.”

The Commission also considered the possibility of this representational distortion resulting in a situation where a party may be able to win the government (the absolute majority of seats) while finishing second in popular vote thereby creating an artificial majority. While the electoral history of Saint Lucia has not yet exhibited the latter tendency, nonetheless the Commission recognised that it was a distinct possibility and indeed was not alien to the Commonwealth Caribbean.

In its deliberations, the Commission considered different types of electoral systems. Special attention was paid to the system of proportionality which lends itself to erasing many of the distortions that are created under the current system. Foremost among the appeals of the proportional representation system was its tendency to create a political space for a greater number of political parties to participate in the decision making process of the country. Thus proportional representation would correct the tendency of the plurality electoral system to deprive third parties of representation.

However, the Commission was also troubled by the possibility that, given the historical closeness in the national vote, support of the two dominant political parties in the country, its adoption as the institutional system for Saint Lucia could lead to deadlock in the Parliament, create excessive control by party bosses, and had the potential to create instability. Therefore the Commission reasoned that the post election bargaining and horse trading which takes place under the Proportional Representation system (PR) would be avoided by the retention of the status quo. Further, the Commission recognises that proportional representation systems are prevalent in diverse societies with groups or groupings. These types of divisions are absent in Saint Lucian society.

The Commission viewed the FPTP system as a simpler system to administer than the other electoral models. Consequently the Commission rejected other voting systems such as the Single Transferable Vote, the Double Ballot System, the Proportional Representation system and others which might prove not only intellectually taxing but also incur higher administrative costs for the country. Additionally the Commission felt that the FPTP would work well with its flagship recommendation of the right of recall for the elected members of Parliament, which would be difficult, if not impossible, to exercise under a proportional representation system which was often recommended by Saint Lucians.

Perhaps with the single exception of the powers of the Prime Minister, no other issue occupied the mind of the Saint Lucian public more than the nature of the electoral system and the general elections environment. In that respect the Commission received memoranda and heard from the constituents during the many group discussions and public consultations that were held both at home and abroad. In general there appeared to be much dissatisfaction with the operation and performance of the model in the country.

Additionally the Commission received recommendations that there should be a fixed date of elections. This was justified on the grounds that such an important democratic instrument should not be left to the whims and fancy of the Prime Minister. This was readily supported by the Commission who felt that this constitutional power of the Prime Minister tended to give an unfair advantage to the ruling political party which would always select a date that was most convenient to them. The Commission, however, was cognisant of the fact that the retention of the parliamentary form of Government, albeit with some important changes, necessitated a refashioning of the electoral and parliamentary systems that would continue to provide the Parliament with the opportunity and the right to move a no confidence motion against the Government.

In that regard therefore, the Commission felt that it would be impractical to maintain that important instrument of censure (no confidence) against the government while instituting the fixed date of elections. How then to resolve the dilemma of a fixed date of elections within the confines of a parliamentary principle of the no confidence motion? In the event, the Commission took the compromised position that the fixed date of election would substitute for the current flexible timeline (subject to the constitutional requirement that elections be held once in every five years), except under circumstances where a successful no confidence motion automatically triggered a dissolution of the Parliament of Saint Lucia. As such the Commission strongly advocated the retention of the current constitutional provision which provides for the Head of State to dissolve the Parliament if the Prime Minister fails to either resign or advise dissolution, within three days of the passing of a resolution of no confidence in the Government.

With respect to choice of an electoral system, the Commission recommends the following:
(83) The First-Past-the-Post plurality system of elections should be retained.
(84) There should be fixed dates for Parliamentary Elections so that these elections are held every five (5) years on the 5th anniversary of the previous elections.

(85) Exception to the fixed date of elections should be made by retaining the provisions of Section 55 (4) (b) and (c) of the Constitution which state:

“(b) If a resolution of no confidence in the government is passed by the House and the Prime Minister does not within three days either resign or advise a dissolution, the Governor General acting in his/her own deliberate judgement, may dissolve parliament; and

(c) If the office of the Prime Minister is vacant and the Governor General acting in his own deliberate judgement, considers that there is no prospect of his being able within a reasonable time to make an appointment to the office, the Governor General shall dissolve parliament.”

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