By Dr Lawrence A Joseph
An official opposition in parliament plays a most significant role in the governance of a country. An effective official opposition party ought to be able to keep the government “on its toes” and offer itself up as a credible alternative government whenever any upcoming general elections take place.
It is therefore not the best governance situation as was the case after the 1999 General Elections in Grenada, and presently when one party controls all the seats in the House of Representatives. In such a situation there is no constitutional provision for a Leader of the Opposition to be appointed, nor for an official opposition to be recognised in parliament whatsoever.
However, in the absence of a Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives, the Governor General is authorised to appoint three senators to the Senate in accordance with section 62 (2) of the Grenada Constitution. Whilst it is not necessary that these three senators be chosen from an opposition party, it so happens that the present appointees of the Governor General are from the main opposition party.
As a consequence of the present situation, it has been mooted by some that the Constitution ought to be amended in such a way as to ensure that an official opposition would always be in both Houses of Parliament in order to enhance the effectiveness of governance in the country. Indeed the Leader of the Opposition has a number of important constitutional roles to play whilst in parliament. He or she is responsible for nominating three senators to the Senate following general elections; for appointing a Public Accounts Committee for the purpose of scrutinising the financial management of government and for taking the lead on the budget debate. As the Constitution is presently being reviewed, this creates an excellent opportunity to give consideration to rectifying the present situation.
Northern Ireland is perhaps the only country amongst modern liberal democracies where the constitution does not provide for any official opposition whatsoever. This is the case because of the delicate nature of the political situation there following what has been referred to as “the Troubles.” The Troubles gave rise to civil insurrection mainly between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). It lasted for over 30 years from the late 1960’s when there were over 3,000 violent deaths and over 50,000 casualties.
The conflict came to a formal end in 1998 when all parties signed the Belfast Agreement also referred to as “the Good Friday Agreement”. By this agreement the paramilitary groups agreed to a cease fire and the decommissioning of all weapons and ammunition. Since then an uneasy peace prevails. Presently, all the elected members of the 14 political parties share in governing the country. The two main parties, that is, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) now has its leader Peter Robinson as the First Minister and the Sein Fein’s deputy leader, Martin Mc Guinness as the Deputy First Minister. They head a 14 member executive of mixed membership. Originally these groupings were dead enemies. From all appearances, the constitutional provisions seem to be working well because of the special circumstances.
In Grenada some have suggested that one way of avoiding a situation of not having an official opposition in parliament is to keep the “first past the post” system for each of the constituencies and then allocate a specified number of seats to parties based upon proportional representation. This approach may be workable, but a lot depends on the procedure which is to be adopted in order to allocate those seats. It has to be ensured that this system does not allow a party with less than fifty percent of the seats but with perhaps more percentage of the overall votes cast, to gain the seat of government by the back door. It is to be noted that after the 1995 general elections in Grenada, the New National Party won the elections with 8 seats representing only 32.4% of the votes, whilst the National Democratic Congress together with the Grenada United Labour Party won 7 seats with 57.2% of the votes.
Perhaps a better alternative method of ensuring that there would always be an official opposition in parliament, is to amend the Constitution to authorise the Governor General to appoint a Leader of the Opposition to the House, after consulting with the political leader of the party which obtained the highest percentage of votes, without giving consideration to the percentage of votes of the party which obtained all the seats in parliament.
If any of the above methods is used, the Constitution would also have to be amended in order to recognise the existence of political parties, which is presently not the case.