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No Opposition

Published: 
Sunday, June 3, 2018

For the second time this year and for the seventh time overall in Commonwealth Caribbean national electoral history, one party won all of the seats in the May 24 Barbados general election.

T&T had this phenomenon in 1971, Jamaica had it in 1983, St Vincent and the Grenadines had it in 1989, Grenada had it in 1999, 2013 and 2018, and now Barbados.

At the sub-national level, it happened in the 2013 Tobago House of Assembly elections.

The effect of this type of outcome is one of the risks of the first past-the-post system in small-island territories either because of an overwhelming vote by the electorate for one party or because of a no-vote campaign as happened in T&T in 1971 and in Jamaica in 1983.

The reality is that overwhelming popular expression of electoral will can cause problems for small-island Westminster-Whitehall democracies in ensuring that there is an opposition to provide a check and balance on the exercise of executive power.

The reality is that, of the listed countries above, where there was a landslide election with one party winning all of the seats, only two of them have specific provisions for an alternative plan of action to ensure continued functionality of the process of government, notwithstanding the absence of someone to hold the position of Leader of the Opposition.

Both Jamaica and Barbados have such fallback provisions in their Constitutions at section 81 (Jamaica) and section 75 (Barbados).

While the Jamaican and T&T Constitutions were formulated around the same time in 1962, they both had very different provisions for vacancies in the office of the Leader of the Opposition.

Barbados has the following provision in its Constitution:

“75. During any period in which there is a vacancy in the office of Leader of the Opposition by reason of the fact that no person is both qualified in accordance with this Constitution for, and willing to accept, appointment to that office, the Governor-General shall-

(a) act in his discretion in the exercise of any function in respect of which it is provided in this Constitution that the Governor-General shall act in accordance with the advice of the Leader of the Opposition…”

This subsection would seem to confer on the Governor-General a right to substitute her own discretion for that of the advice of the Leader of the Opposition in cases where there is no Leader of the Opposition.

However, last Friday one of the BLP MPs, Bishop Joseph Atherly, the MP for St. Michael West, decided to cross the floor and become Leader of the Opposition. After campaigning on a BLP ticket, he suddenly decided that he is opposed to the Government he helped to elect.

Prime Minister Mia Mottley spoke last Sunday about a constitutional amendment to use a mathematical formula to determine the appointment of opposition senators when she said:

“We have discussed the need for an urgent amendment of the Constitution to allow the Opposition political party securing the highest number of votes to recommend two appointments to the Senate because we believe that even though there has been no official Leader of the Opposition, my government would wish to have accommodated the views of the main opposition party that secured the largest amount of votes.”

This proposition was thrown out of the window with Bishop Atherly’s decision to cross the floor and now two opposition senators will be appointed.

Grenada attempted to amend its Constitution in November 2016 when one of the seven constitutional amendment bills put before the electorate in the compulsory referendum sought to rectify their situation.

That bill proposed that someone who did not win a seat in the House of Representatives could become a member by virtue of the Governor-General consulting the “leadership” of the political party that got the second highest number of votes in the general election to appoint one of the members of that party as the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives with all of the rights and privileges of the other elected MPs.

That proposition was rejected by the Grenadian electorate in the constitutionally-required referendum by a margin of 15,481 against, and 6,113 for, the amendment.

The deeper political issue for consideration is how to balance constituency representation with checks and balances for the executive.

A mixed system of proportional representation and the first past-the-post system might more effectively solve the problem.

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