How necessary is it to have an Official Leader of The Opposition?

Sir Lawrence A Joseph

by Sir Lawrence A Joseph

Provisions are made in section 66 of the Grenada Constitution for the Governor-General to appoint a Leader of the Opposition following a general election. That section spells out that that person must be an elected member of the House of Representatives who appears to be able to command the support of the largest number of members of the House in opposition to the government. However, following the general elections of 1999 and 2013, the respective Governors-General were unable to appoint Leaders of the Opposition because on those occasions the New National Party won all 15 seats in the House. There is no constitutional provision for making an appointment in such a situation.

Some are of the view that when there is no official opposition in Parliament the democratic process becomes undermined, so they express the view that some constitutional mechanism ought to be put in place to correct this perceived weakness. Others think otherwise as they feel that if the electorate in a democratic process has taken the decision to elect all the candidates of one party in an election it becomes the will of the people and that this decision should stand. Notwithstanding this ongoing contention, there is no doubt that an official opposition could play an important role in the governance of a country. An effective official opposition ought to be able to keep government “on its toes” and offer itself up as a credible alternative government whenever any general election takes place. Besides being entitled to appoint opposition senators to the Senate, the Leader of the Opposition also has the responsibility to appoint persons to particular Boards, to a Public Accounts Committee for the purpose of scrutinizing the financial management of government and to critically conduct an analysis of government’s presentation of the annual budget.

In connection with the ongoing contention therefore, one of the Bills which will be considered in the upcoming referendum scheduled for Thursday, 27 October 2016, will be on Ballot Paper No. 3. This Bill is entitled: Constitution of Grenada (Ensuring the Appointment of Leader of the Opposition) (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The Bill proposes that in a situation where one political party wins all the seats in the House following a general election, the Governor-General must consult with the leadership of the party which obtained the second highest number of votes and appoint a Leader of the Opposition. That person will then be able to sit in the House of Representatives and perform his or her constitutional functions.

Some may argue that a more effective way of ensuring that there is a Leader of the Opposition is for a substantive form of Proportional Representation to be adopted. Proportional Representation (PR) refers to a number of electoral systems where seats in parliament are more or less distributed to parties in proportion to the votes cast for those parties at general elections. Invariably where a party gets a significant percentage of votes, that party will also be entitled to a number of seats from which a Leader of the Opposition could be appointed. The present electoral system which is being used in Grenada is the First–Past–the–Post (FPTP) system which allows the candidate who obtains a simple majority vote in a particular constituency to become the representative in parliament. However, whilst the FPTP system is quite simple, PR systems may be quite complicated, may prove to be very confusing to many voters, and often lead to the formation of coalition governments which situation has its own disadvantages.

There are 3 main types of PR systems. One is the Party List Voting System which is used in Guyana, Europe and South Africa. With this type, each party puts up a list of candidates equal to the number of seats in the district; voters would then express preference for a party or candidates. Parties would then receive seats in accordance with their shares of the votes. The Single Transferable Vote System is used by Northern Ireland and Malta. The names of candidates are allocated numbers from 1 to 9. Voters indicate their preference for a candidate according to a number and their votes are transferable to another candidate in certain circumstances. The Mixed–Member Proportional Voting System is used in Germany and Venezuela. It is a combination of the FPTP system with a PR element.

It is submitted that the PR system is more suited for solving racial divisions as in Guyana or religious divisions as in Northern Ireland. In any event, dependent on the minimum threshold that is established for receiving seats, one party may still end up getting all seats in the house using PR. The abovementioned Bill presents a much simpler method for the appointment of a Leader of the Opposition in case one party wins all seats. However the main question remains: should the results of the present FPTP system stand as the democratic will of the people?

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