There is little doubt that most Belizeans are disappointed in the way our elected representatives are running our country. We go to the polls to elect a government every five years or so, and the party that wins the right to govern enriches its ranking members, handles our finances with no transparency or accountability, pussyfoots with reforms that are necessary to improve our democracy, and manipulates the system as best they can to secure another term in office.
Some blame our woes on the Parliamentary system we inherited from the British. They argue that what we need is a Republican system, akin to that in the USA.
The systems are not really dissimilar. In the Republican system there is a president, a Senate, a House of Representatives, and an independent judiciary. In the US, the president is elected directly, and they are unlimited in choosing their Cabinet. In the Parliamentary system there is a prime minister, a House of Representatives, a Senate, and an independent judiciary. In our system the prime minister is the leader of the party that gains the most seats, and he/she is limited to choosing the Cabinet from the House of Representatives and the Senate.
In both systems the party in power wants to exert some control over the judiciary. In the US Republican system the two parties have to depend on a stroke of luck, a vacancy in the court when their party is in power. In our system our leaders can try to manipulate the judiciary by severely limiting the term of tenure of judges. Judges are human beings, and so they, at least some of them, may be concerned about their next contract.
Without going into too much detail, both systems have mechanisms to keep the leader and the elected representatives in line. The Republican system in the USA works well enough for them, and the Parliamentary system in the UK works well enough for them. The Parliamentary system does not work that well for us.
Proponents of the Republican system say that type of government effectively keeps a president in check. The present president in the USA would not altogether agree with that claim. It is for the Americans to discuss their president’s job performance, but we will say that despite the constraints, he is very much having his way.
A very important constraint mechanism in the Parliamentary system is the “back benchers.” It is likely that the back bencher system works better in a large government (650 members in the UK House of Commons) than it does in a small government (31 members in our House of Representatives). That, however, is no excuse for our leaders to obliterate it.
Since the back bencher system has been a dud in Belize, some have pushed to reform the Senate, with the aim being to firm up this body so that it can offer some resistance to the House of Representatives. The Senate has been tweaked, with a 13th senator, but the present government dishonorably punched a hole through that.
A proposal for an elected Senate was forwarded by one of the two major parties, the PUP, and they put that to the people in a type of referendum in the 2008 general election. The UDP won the election, and their mandate called for the 13th senator Senate, and we know what they did with that. The elected Senate remains one of Belize’s great hopes to improve our democracy.
It is pretty clear that for the large part, our elected leaders are game to abuse our system, and if we changed to the Republican system we could expect they would do the same, as much as they could. It is important for us to improve our governance, keeping in mind that corrupt or incompetent leaders can undermine a good system. The mission for Belize must be to elect more representatives who have capacity and love their country more than their party, and the only way to do that is to change the electoral system.
We need to increase our talent pool. Our first-past-the-post (FPTP) system only allows for the participation of two-thirds of the persons with leadership potential. One third of our talent pool resides among the non-aligned Belizeans and third parties, and this group is unrepresented. We do have good talent in the House – they draw from 66% of our talent pool – but it is difficult for a country to progress if it excludes 33% of its capacity.
As it stands right now, the only way for a new idea to get a chance is through one of the two mass parties. UBAD recognized that truth about our FPTP after only one election, and after its defeat in 1974 the party dissolved. The vision of its leaders, however, did not die, and at different times they have sought to tie their agenda to a mass party that seemed receptive. Thus the dissolved UBAD was able to win the vote for 18-year-olds, and free radio and television, and there has still been a relentless push for the teaching of African and Mayan history in our schools.
The VIP, the most organized third party Belize has ever seen, included in its manifesto a call for proportional representation (PR), as UBAD did in 1974. The VIP has stuck to its vision for a number of years, but it hasn’t made much progress with its mission.
There are two vehicles available for us if we believe in tapping from 100% of our available talent, and those are PR and the alternative vote (AV). In PR, a party commands a number of seats based on the percentage of votes it gets. The rap on PR is that it leads to unstable governments, though some people believe that “insecure” leaders would perform better.
The AV’s big advantage over the FPTP is that it gives third party and independent candidates a far better chance at the polls. In one version of AV, electors vote not only for whom they want to win, but also for the person who is their second choice. Very simply, if the candidate that tops the poll in a division doesn’t get 50% of the vote, then the second place votes come into play. One variation could be a run-off between the top two finishers.
The harsh truth for us at this time is that there is a lot of despondency in our land. We are losing hope in tomorrow, and the proof is in the pain of increasing poverty and the horror of escalating crime. We can do something about it. Our first step is to draw our leaders from an expanded talent pool.