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Ideas and Opinions – Parliamentary democracy or republic

Which is better for Belize? We have had a parliamentary democracy, as decreed by our Constitution, for the past thirty years. After that experience we should be properly able to evaluate and compare it with the republican system of government.

All our fellow members of Caricom, except Trinidad and Tobago, are parliamentary democracies. Trinidad and Tobago was originally a parliamentary democracy, but adopted the republican system, many years ago. So. They were in a good position to compare the two systems and, we can find out the reasons why they decided to change, in the event that we were contemplating the same step.

I always thought that we have a wonderful Constitution, the spirit of which is in the Preamble and, in our commitment to being a nation of faith expressed in the first words of that great document, thus: “We affirm the supremacy of God.”

The Constitution would have served us well if our elected representatives were all nationalistic with a vocation for public service. If they were, they would put the national interest above their party, and public service above self-service. We have not been so blessed. The majority parties in government, putting expediency above the public interest, have weakened our democracy by appointing almost all their colleagues to the Executive. That is the first weakness in our democratic system. The second weakness is worse.

It seems that the five-year term is a blessing to the victorious party of a general election. They have five long years to use and enjoy their power. Corrupt ministers, and the system seems to produce this sort, can do a lot of “good” for themselves, their friends and the party, during that time. After four years, their rule becomes intolerable and, the people wait patiently for general elections to express their ire. This feeling of disgust, usually, takes the form of a landslide victory for the Opposition party. A landslide victory means the conference of overwhelming power on the incoming government, which is certainly not the intention of our Constitution.

The People’s United Party won a landslide victory in the general elections of 1998. It was the most lopsided in our history – Blue 26 seats, Red 3 seats. They had the power to amend, suspend or even replace the Constitution, without the support of the Opposition. The last is unthinkable and, would be catastrophic.

The United Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the general elections of 2008, with a division in the House of Representatives of 26 Red and 5 Blue. The same situation existed during their term of office from 2008 to 2012, when the UDP called early elections.

It is a decided weakness in our democracy when the ruling party can hold such overwhelming power that the Opposition party is of no consequence. Perhaps, this weakness can be remedied by an amendment to the Constitution. The political parties must have a reason why such an amendment has never been proposed.

The third weakness is a lack of personal integrity in the holders of a particular Ministerial post. An example is the practice to engage in numerous land transactions, favorable to themselves and their families, just before general elections. Attention must be called also, to the unholy alliance which seems to exist between certain Ministers and their Chief Executive Officers, to use their offices to feather their own nests. These Ministers’ sense of security is aided by the fact that there are no replacements among the almost non-existent “back benchers.”

Another weakness is that we elect members of the House of Representatives, which is the Legislative. From among the elected members of the majority party is formed the Executive, chosen by the Prime Minister, who is the Party Leader. These representatives were elected to be lawmakers, which some of them were ill-fitted for. Now, they are to be appointed Ministers, with much responsibility and power, which may be beyond their capabilities. It would have helped if their chief advisors and executive officers came from among the senior managers of the public service, where thirty or more years of knowledge and experience in the field, is the norm.

Every democratic system has weaknesses. The big weakness in the republican system, with which we are familiar, is a thing called gridlock. That is where the funds for carrying out the functions of government, which is the responsibility of the Executive, have not been approved by the Legislature (called “Congress” in America). I know of only one such phenomenon. Gridlocks can and have been avoided, except in this one instance, but it is a weakness in that system.

Now, let us consider the strengths of the republican system. There is no corruption at the top. The President has to be like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. The Secretaries which he chooses to put in charge of the Departments of Government are under the constant oversight of Congressional and Senatorial committees. Their conduct and performance are under the constant scrutiny of a very alert and critical media and, every cent of their allocations has to be spent according to procedures, which have the force of law. Corrupt officials go to jail under the republican system of government.

The President can choose the best man for the job in the whole nation, to serve as the Head of each Department of government. They are directly responsible to him for the administration of their departments and he is as accountable to the nation.

The President chooses the Secretaries but, they have to be confirmed by a Senatorial Committee before they can assume office. This is the system in America. It gives the “Opposition” a chance to discover and uncover anything in the designee’s record which might make him unfit for office.

For the purpose of comparison, I have been using the republican system in America as a model.

The term of office of the President in America is four years. There is a different term for members of Congress and the Senate. Senators have the longest term of office. All the branches of government have a fixed day for general elections. A fixed day for general elections is, in the opinion of this columnist, a distinct advantage over our constitutional requirement, which declares that the Prime Minister may call generals to be held on any day during his government’s term of office. In other words, when the time is most favorable for his party’s chance of re-election. It is better for the people to know that there is a fixed day of reckoning, to judge whether they have been well served or not.

It has always been my contention that a five-year term is too long. The people should have a chance to judge a government in the shortest possible time. Three years would be better that four. Four would be better than five. I think that the Founding Fathers of America made a wise choice when they decided on a four-year term for their president. I am on the record with my reasons why a four-year term is to be preferred and, I note that one of our own major parties proposed it in their last manifesto.

There are other features of the republican system that may be compared favorably to what we have in our Constitution but, what has already been presented inclines me to believe that it might be prudent to give some thought to our becoming a republic.

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