From time to time, political pundits and party leaders raise the spectre of restructuring aspects of Bermuda’s electoral system. While almost always presented as being in the “national” interest there is, nonetheless, an unmistakable more narrowly defined interest as well. The One Bermuda Alliance’s call for fixed term elections is the latest incarnation of this effort.
On its face, setting a fixed date for general elections seems sensible: all parties as well as voters will know when to prepare and when to vote well in advance. We see this embraced by our closest friend and most important ally the United States and they have set the standard for democratic participation around the world.
The US system, though, is structured in a fundamentally different way from Bermuda’s parliamentary system and fixed-term elections would sit uncomfortably. The presidential system on which the US is based has direct elections for its leader; and its Congress can continue to operate even with defeats on important votes. By contrast, based on the UK system, our leader is elected indirectly and Government would fall if a key vote in Parliament fails.
Fixed term elections are a rarity under parliamentary democracies for a reason. There is a long tradition of governance being based on retaining the confidence of the people, through their elected representatives. When that confidence manifestly disappears, an election is the necessary outcome. We saw that recently in Canada and Bermuda came close to this in 2009 with the political rupture caused by Premier Brown’s decision to bring four Guantanamo detainees to Bermuda.
Votes of no confidence are critical to the parliamentary system and help to keep governing parties on their toes; it is a buffer between the people and wanton and reckless policies. As we have just been reminded, our constitution does not recognise political parties; the leader is that person whom the Governor accepts as commanding the support of the majority of MPs. In the absence of that support an election would inevitably follow.
Our current system actually grants greater power to the people over Parliament than is often appreciated. The fact that people do not act on the power they have is another story altogether.
The call for fixed term elections suggests that it creates a more level playing field between parties since the time is known well in advance. In fact, the norm is for elections to be called on a four to five year timeframe in Bermuda and political parties have almost always been prepared. After all, since we know the upper limit is five years, parties typically begin preparations by the third year in any event. The only time in our democratic history we have had a break from this practice was in the first half of the 1980s under the leadership of Sir John Swan. Having had an election in 1980, the then-Mr Swan called a subsequent election in 1983, ostensibly to get a personal mandate, but really to take advantage of the boost in support he received after becoming Premier in 1982. And then he called another one in 1985 to benefit from the division that fragmented the PLP.
We will no doubt continue to debate the suitability of our political system, whether this structure represents the best democratic shell for effective governance. Calls for the abolition of political parties, proportional representation and now, fixed dates for elections should all be assessed soberly. They need to be assessed within the context of our political structure and not simply parachuted in from a fundamentally different paradigm. It may well be that some reforms will enhance democratic participation and strengthen people’s rights; and we may need to move in that direction. But reform simply to benefit a political party is likely to be a non-starter.