Editorial | Discuss term limits
Cynics might claim that voters have finally caught up with Prime Minister Andrew Holness, even if he may have since changed his mind.
What, however, findings of the poll on the attitude of Jamaicans to term limits for political leaders clearly establish is that the current discussions on constitutional reform ought to be far more expansive and transparent than is now the case. The immediate focus of the Constitutional Reform Committee (CRC) is on transitioning the island from monarchy to a republic by removing the king of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as Jamaica’s head of state. There is no concern, for instance, with what ought to be the concomitant step of replacing the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which ostensibly dispenses to Jamaicans on behalf of the sovereign king, as Jamaica’s final court.
Indeed, Nadine Spence, the chair of CRC’s subcommittee on public engagement, recently lamented the lack of resources with which to conduct that engagement. There is a wide chasm between the committee and the vast majority of citizens, who are disconnected from its work.
What Jamaicans are in no doubt about, however, is their belief politicians, particularly members of parliament and the prime minister, should not become locked into office for the long haul and therefore should be subjected to term limits. Nearly eight in 10 (77.1 per cent) of them hold that view, according to the findings of the poll conducted for the RJRGLEANER Communications Group (of which this newspaper is a member) by Don Anderson’s Market Research Ltd. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus three per cent.
Of this group, a clear majority (54.6 per cent) said that the prime minister – who under this country’s Westminster-style parliamentary system can stay in the job as long his party continues to win elections and he remains its leader – should be limited to two terms. That, all things being equal, would be a maximum of 10 consecutive years. Another quarter (25.8 per cent) of the population would allow him an additional, or third term.
Additionally, 72 per cent of adults said the term restrictions should also apply to regular MPs, with just under a half (48.2 per cent) believing that two terms are enough for legislators. Another 30.1 per cent would place the cap at three terms.
Anyway these numbers are sliced, the verdict is clear and, given this newspaper’s confidence in the accuracy and integrity of Mr Anderson’s surveys, indisputable: Jamaicans want term limits.
That is, or used to be, the position of Mr Holness – declared during his brief stint as prime minister after the implosion of Bruce Golding administration in 2011, and affirmed as policy of now the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) as it campaigned for the 2016 general election.
On the eve of that vote Mr Holness pledged term limits would not only be a priority for his administration if he won the election, but something he would tackle during his first three months in office.
“Within the first 100 days of government, we will start the legislative process to introduce term limits on the office of prime minister,” Mr Holness said at a public meeting in Montego Bay a fortnight before the elections.
Legislation for a fixed election date, he also pledged, would be on the same timetable.
During his nearly eight years in office, Mr Holness hasn’t followed through on these undertakings, although they were also JLP policy positions that preceded his leadership.
TABLED A BILL
In fact, in 2010, his predecessor, Mr Golding, in whose administration Mr Holness served, actually tabled a bill to amend the constitution to allow for prime ministerial term limits. Achieving this would be a relatively easy process, given that section 70 of the constitution that deals with the appointment of prime ministers isn’t a deeply entrenched clause. It would merely require the vote of the majority of all members of the House.
“We feel that the political system, and the institutions that it gives rise to, are in need of renewal,” Mr Golding said.
Further, he argued, the reform would “restrict the leader-centric nature of the current political system”, which impeded renewal.
Said Mr Golding at the time: “It is intended, in Section 70 of the Constitution, to insert two new subsections. Subsection one (a) will simply say a person shall not be appointed to the office of the Prime Minister if he or she has held that office for periods, which, when added together total more than nine years.”
Mr Golding’s arguments are essentially the same ones used by proponents of term limits.
But 13 years on, there are reasons other than leaders becoming jaded for not wanting politicians to become too entrenched in their jobs. Jamaicans generally believe that their country has grown more corrupt.
Seven in 10 of the population say that they live in a corrupt or very corrupt country. Half the people don’t trust the legislature and most institutions of the state; and as one recent survey disclosed, politicians now surpass the police as the group people believe to be the island’s most corrupt. Further, the influential survey on democracy in the Americas by Vanderbilt University’s LAPOP research laboratory found that nearly half (46 per cent) of Jamaicans would tolerate a military coup if its aim was to route corruption.
Sentiments like these clearly put Jamaica’s democracy at risk.
Mr Holness must have good reasons why he hasn’t advanced the discussion on term limits. But these poll findings insist that it is an issue that the country’s political leadership, including the opposition People’s National Party, cannot continue to ignore.