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OPINION || Trias Politica! It’s not the system; it’s how you use it that matters! Part I

By Dyon A. Elliott

In last week’s Res Publica360 column, we tackled whether there would be any economic impact if there is a switch from Belize’s present political system of a constitutional monarchal parliamentary to somewhere along the spectrum towards a presidential republic.

Citing the empirical research work of McManus and Ozkan, who, in their 2017 paper entitled “Who does better for the economy?” Presidents versus parliamentary democracies” essentially said that “it’s not the system it’s how you use it” that truly matters. Consequently, last week’s Res Publica360 concluded as follows:

“Whether Belize stays as a constitutional parliamentary monarchy or transitions anywhere along the spectrum towards a type of presidential structure, the primary focus should be on (i) establishing strong check and balances, (ii) strengthening separation of powers, (iii) doubling down on the tenets of limited government and the rule of law, (iv) augmenting popular sovereignty (inclusiveness in governance and closer to consensus), and (v) guaranteeing the protection of individual rights.”

Checks and Balances

Let’s zoom in a bit on one of those tenets, namely, “establishing Check and Balances.” This concept is closely linked with a second core principle: Separation of Powers (also known as “trias politica” philosophy or principle). Fundamentally, the goal here is for the different branches of government to be able to check or even limit the action of the other two.

For instance, the Legislative Branch—responsible for lawmaking—has oversight of the Executive Branch of Government, which is tasked with the execution of laws set by Parliament. Recently, for example, the Non-Profit Organization Bill (NPO Bill) made a big media splash, given the pushback from key stakeholders. The law being passed is the function of the legislature (Parliament). However, Parliament will not be the one to enforce it. Instead, it is the Executive Branch of Government via—in this working example—the Ministry of Finance and its subordinate departments, including the likes of the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), that will have to administer the law.

Of course, suppose either of the other two has breached perhaps some Constitutional principle by stepping beyond the powers they were given (acting, as the lawyers would say, “ultra vires”). In that case, the courts (the judiciary) can have a role in nipping any missteps in the bud.

Free to Oversee

In theory, the trias politicas structure should work fine. And keeping with the motif from last week’s Res Publica360, the parliamentary or presidential system can BOTH supply its citizenry with good checks and balances, depending on how it is structured.

For this week, the focus here will be on the oversight role that the Legislative Branch—specifically the House of Representatives—should have over the Executive Branch (the Cabinet).

As one would observe in jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom, there is a palpable limitation on the number of members of the House of Commons (equivalent of our House of Representatives) that can become ministers. While the UK does not have a codified Constitution, they do have, as it relates to this topic, laws that seek to ensure the independence of the legislature as it pertains to its oversight functions.

For example, the UK has the “House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975.” This Act reads:

Not more than ninety-five persons being the holders of offices specified in Schedule 2 to this Act (in this section referred to as Ministerial offices) shall be entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons at any one time.

Now, we have to put that figure (95) into perspective. Unlike Belize’s Lower House which has only 31 members, the UK’s Lower House (“the House of Commons”) has 650 seats. The Conservative and Unionist Party (most commonly dubbed “the Conservative Party” or the “Tories”) holds 354 of those seats.

And there you have it! The number of Conservative Party legislators’ votes would, at any given time, far exceed the number of Conservative Party-selected ministers’ votes in the UK Parliament. Said differently, it is not necessarily guaranteed that the “Ayes” will have it. Here the ministerial votes only make up 27% of votes among the Conservative Party members in the House of Commons. If the full Lower House (650 seats) is included, that share of power falls to less than 15%.

Under such a design, a Conservative Party “backbencher”—who is a Member of Parliament that holds no governmental office such as a ministerial post and is thus freed of the “Payroll Vote”—can freely criticize his or her own Conservative-Party-led Executive Branch and possibly even vote against a law with which he or she disagrees. This helps to hold the prime minister and the other members of the Executive Branch accountable not only to the Opposition but also to their own party members.

Juxtapose that to our Belizean scenario, and we begin to see the structural flaws. As I had said earlier, we have 31 seats. Presently, twenty-six (26) of those seats are held by the People’s United Party (PUP) (“the Majority”). The UDP has five (“the Minority”).

Among this group of parliamentarians, twenty-three (23) of them hold governmental offices either as substantive ministers or ministers of state (so-called “junior ministers”). In percentage terms, that is close to 75% of the members of the House of Representatives that are subject to the “Payroll Vote.” When looked at exclusively as to the members of the Majority, that is roughly a power share of 88%. Said differently, the Executive Branch pays more than 70% of Belize’s Lower House that they are tasked with “overseeing” and serving as a “Check and Balance.”

When compared to the UK’s 15% and 27%, as mentioned above, it is hoped that the reader could see the inherent problems tied to this power imbalance. This imbalance is a core ingredient for malfunctions as far as the principle of trias politica and solid systems for Check and Balance are concerned.

To Be Continued

This topic, of course, will be continued in next week’s Res Publica360 when we look at potential fixes and remedies. But, for now, the salient point is this: It’s not the system, per se; it is how you use it.

We just looked at two parliamentary structures: Belize’s and that in the United Kingdom's. With the latter having a healthy number of “backbenchers” relative to those constrained by the “Payroll Vote,” the UK’s design provides for much better oversight of the Executive. In Belize, it is worth repeating that the imbalance is fairly conspicuous, with well more than 70% of the Lower House paid by the same Executive Branch that they are supposed to oversee. That is something to think about.

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