As we approach the constitutional deadline for general elections in the context of a national state of emergency, the question arises as to whether a national State of Emergency can be used to justify a delay in the scheduling of general elections beyond the constitutional deadline.
The question gives rise to constitutional issues and requires an appreciation of the provisions in the constitution governing the dissolution of the National Assembly and the scheduling of general elections thereafter.
Section 84(2) of the Belize Constitution provides that “ Subject to the provisions of subsection 3 of this section the National Assembly, unless sooner dissolved, shall continue for 5 years from the date of the first sitting of the House of Representatives after any dissolution and shall then stand dissolved.”
And section 84(3) goes on to provide that “at any time Belize is at war, the National Assembly may by law extend the period of five years specified in subsection 2 of this section for not more than twelve months at a time: Provided that the life of the National Assembly shall not be extended under this section for more than two years.”
The foregoing therefore makes it clear that the National Assembly, unless sooner dissolved by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister, automatically dissolves upon the expiration of 5 years from the date of the first sitting of the House after the last general elections.
The dissolution of the National Assembly may, however, be postponed by law if Belize is at war and the postponement may be extended for up to one year at a time for a grand total of two years in such circumstances.
Section 85 of the Belize Constitution provides that “A general election of the members of the House of Representatives shall be held at such time within three months after every dissolution of the National Assembly as the Governor General, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, may appoint.”
Unlike the dissolution of the National Assembly, there is no provision in the Constitution for extending the time for the appointment of a date for general elections, so general elections must be held within 3 months of dissolution of the National Assembly.
Section 84(5) provides for the summoning of the two Houses of the National Assembly between the dates of dissolution and general elections in cases where an emergency arises, making it necessary for the Houses to meet during the interim period.
If so summoned, the Houses of the National Assembly can continue to act to address the emergency as if never dissolved, but will be dissolved on the date of the general elections.
The COVID-19 pandemic is obviously not a war, and is therefore not a basis upon which the dissolution of the National Assembly might be lawfully postponed. It might, however, indeed represent an emergency warranting the summoning of both Houses during the period in which the National Assembly is dissolved and the date has been fixed for General Elections, assuming that exigencies arising from the pandemic during that interim period require action by the Houses of the National Assembly.
The argument has also been made that a date fixed for general elections might be postponed beyond the constitutionally mandated period if it becomes impossible for the elections to be held during the mandated period.
In such a case, it is argued that general elections simply have to be held as soon as possible after expiration of the mandated period.
Luckily, the COVID-19 pandemic does not create or result in any such impossibility, so that those arguments need not be tested. This is adequately demonstrated by a number of general elections already held internationally during the pandemic without impact on infection rates.
General elections can therefore be safely conducted, in like or similar manner as those recently done in St. Kitts and Nevis or in Trinidad and Tobago, during the pandemic, by adopting appropriate measures in the conduct of the elections to ensure the safety of all involved.
Even assuming that the date for general elections can be postponed in circumstances giving rise to impossibility in the conduct of mandated elections, the COVID-19 pandemic obviously does not present such circumstances.
As a result, the National Assembly of Belize dissolves in accordance with section 84(2) of the Constitution on the 14th November, 2020, five years having then elapsed since the first meeting of the House of Representatives on the 13th November, 2015, after the last general elections held on November 4, 2015.
A date for general elections must therefore be fixed and general elections held within the three-month period running from 14th November, 2020, through 14th February, 2021.
The decision that fixes the date for general elections during that period rests with the Prime Minister, but must allow for sufficient time for the requirements of the provisions of the Representation of the People Act regulating the conduct of elections to be complied with.
That act requires ten clear days’ notice of nomination day after the issue of the writ of elections and for polls to be conducted not less than 15 nor more than 21 days after nomination day.
At least 25 and not more than 31 days must therefore elapse before the conduct of general elections after the issue of writs of elections.
The current Prime Minister has a history of calling snap elections where he perceives a political advantage in so doing. Given the proximity of the date now fixed for dissolution of the National Assembly by the Constitution and the notice requirements under the Representation of the People Act, any opportunity to gain advantage from a snap election is largely already lost.
All that is left is for the Prime Minister to try to identify a convenient date for elections to his party in light of political realities, if any advantage at all might be secured from the date fixed for elections.
It may indeed be that there is no such prospect, so that the time limits mandated by the Constitution will simply be left to run.