PETER WICKHAM: Well done, St Kitts!
“A person who is appointed Prime Minister under the Constitution shall, subject to subsection (2) of this section, hold office for a term of five years” and “A person shall not be appointed to hold office as Prime Minister for more than two terms as prescribed by this section.” (Tenure of Office of Prime Minister Bill, 2015)
That paragraph is a proposed constitutional amendment that was recently introduced in the St Kitts and Nevis parliament and is easily one of the most progressive initiatives introduced in a Caribbean parliament in recent times. The new Team Unity government proposes to limit the number of terms a prime minister can serve to two.
The extent to which I am enamoured by term limits is presumably well-known and it is equally well known that it has not been a popular initiative across this region where leaders often believe that their greatness is reflected in the number of elections they can win. The reasons term limits are now so critical to our political development are numerous and have been dealt with in previous articles.
The case of St Kitts and Nevis; however, presents a unique scenario where the emergence of Team Unity was in direct response to political conditions where a leader appeared to have used his time in office to further entrench himself. Indeed, the judgement of the UK House of Lords which effectively tipped the political scales in favour of Team Unity, spoke of a government (and leader) which crossed the line of legality in an effort to preserve itself and certainly this scenario is more likely to arise with a leader that knows his way around the system.
This is an issue that has been discussed frequently in the Caribbean and almost never acted upon, although the USA demonstrated the extent to which such a restriction was plausible when they introduced term limits in 1951. It is, therefore, interesting to note that Guyana became the first Caribbean country to impose term-limits as part of the PPP/Civic constitutional reforms in 2001. At that time it could have been argued that the circumstances the PPP/Civic faced were somewhat similar to the current scenario in St Kitts and Nevis. In Guyana, Burnham entrenched himself with the help of overseas voters and on his own admission Dr Douglas attempted to do the same thing; however, Burnham’s decision to let people vote overseas instead of bringing them home gave him considerably greater cover than Douglas was afforded.
Overseas voters aside, in both instances, the political reaction of the incoming government was to enact measures to avoid tyranny and in much the same way that the Americans reacted to despotism of King George, President Jagdeo and Prime Minister Harris have both decided that term limits are central to their assault on tyranny. The fact that Acting Chief Justice Chang ruled in July of this year that this change was unconstitutional is to some extent irrelevant since the intention of Jagdeo in 2001 was clear. Moreover, one can argue that the failure of the Guyana constitutional change provides a useful regional example of what the Kittians would need to avoid if they want their initiative to stand up to legal scrutiny. This is especially so since Chang indicated that for the change to be valid a referendum was necessary and this is exactly what the constitution of St Kitts requires.
It is important to recall that this is the second occasion on which the issue came up regionally since it was part of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s reforms which sadly never came to pass. In that instance, she included her changes as an obvious concession to encourage public and parliamentary support for other less popular initiatives that had greater political benefit. In this instance, Harris has had the wisdom to bring his changes as part of a “stand alone” bill largely because the political benefit he could gain is bound up in the disentitlement of his adversary Douglas from being able to challenge him in the next election. Certainly one could argue that Harris could consider the extent to which Douglas is an asset to his political development; however he has opted to remain true to his manifesto and introduce the initiative.
Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and director of the Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).