Opinion: Electoral reform

POSTED: 12/28/12 1:04 PM

When politicians start thinking about electoral reform, voters need to pay attention. There is nothing wrong with the current system, whereby the votes a party wins translate into seats in parliament. Those seats go to the party-leader and to those candidates on his list that received the most votes. It is a simple and transparent system.

But it has obvious disadvantages: candidates that surf on the wave of a particular party-leader have no obligations to that party, so they are free to have a change of heart any time. This is exactly what happened in St. Maarten after 2010. First, Patrick Illidge left the National Alliance. Then, Frans Richardson followed his example. In April during the calypso-coup, Romain Laville jumped ship from the United People’s party where he was the faction-leader. All three went independent and they used their leverage to unseat the UP-led government.

Why the government fell, nobody knows. There was no apparent reason for a revolt against the UP in the sense that there was an issue on the floor of the parliament, or a pending measure or piece of legislation initiated by this party that sent party-members to the war room. Nothing of the kind happened, at least not in the public eye.

The independents grabbed the opportunity simply because they could. And because this is so, it could happen again tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, and so on. With this mindset, St. Maarten will never, ever have a stable government.

From a power point of view that idea is unsettling, but it is not necessarily negative for the electorate. In the old days, when the Democratic Party was almighty, opposition was basically powerless. As long as the politicians united under the red flag stuck together, nobody was able to touch them. Such a situation leads of course to misplaced arrogance and to abuse of power.

These days, our governments have to pay more attention to what happens in the rank and file of their parties. To stay in the saddle dissatisfied MPs are more than an inconvenience – they are a direct threat to the status quo.

National Alliance leader William Marlin flirted with the British system of constituency voting during an interview on Lloyd Richardson’s Voice of the People program. That is not surprising: under such a system, the National Alliance would have grabbed near absolute power in the 2010 elections. One may well wonder whether such a situation is healthy for a constitutional democracy.

Unstable governments are not created by electoral systems; they are created by politicians. The political culture of our country plays a big part in it, as does the small scale of our community. Everybody knows everybody, and many people are related to each other. Today’s political enemy is tomorrow’s biggest friend. Vice Prime Minister Marlin and Prime Minister Wescot-Williams have had their share of bitter exchanges in the political arena. Yet they are now happily members of the same cabinet. But tomorrow everything could be different again.

Unstable governments are created by the individual ambitions of politicians. Compounding this problem is the lack of openness. Quite some people have their suspicions about these individual ambitions, but they are seldom crystal clear. That is where the real problem lies: in the partial secrecy politicians maintain about their own affairs.

Even in a constituency-voting system there are no guarantees for rock solid governments: individual MPs could still declare themselves independent. Banning that option would be unconstitutional, though politicians have an extremely flexible mind when it comes to interpreting the constitution – so you never know.

What then is a workable solution for our future?

We think the answer is full disclosure as a first step and certain limits to the freedom to declare oneself an independent politician.

Full disclosure means that candidates for a seat in parliament disclose all their business interests and their income before the elections and that they publish their tax returns over the previous five years.

Limiting the freedom to go independent is a trickier issue, but it is doable. One could think about a system whereby members of parliament have to motivate why they are leaving a particular party to become independent. That motivation ought to meet certain standards to be established by a two-third majority in parliament. Whether a particular motivation meets those standards – thereby setting an MP free to go independent – could be left up to the judgment of for instance the constitutional court. If that judgment is negative, the parliamentarian has two options: stay with the party or give up the seat.

We’re not claiming this is the perfect solution – it is a contribution to a debate about a better future wherein politicians act according to a set of sensible rules designed to make the interest of the country more important than the interest of individual politicians.

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