I have written on the power of the Prime Minister in our system of governance and pointed out that one of the weaknesses of our system is that it gives the Prime Minister excessive power not only directly in the Constitution but also through the fact that officers of Government can also be officers of political parties. I shall discuss how these same weaknesses are being perpetuated by the People's Partnership (PP) which is now in Government.
Election of officers of the Congress of the People (COP) is to take place shortly and at least one minister of Government is reported to be running for the post of chairman of that party.
Further, the present chairman, an attorney, has recently been given a brief by the Ministry of Finance. I am not addressing the issue of the brief but it is my view that he should then have resigned as chairman of the party and not put his name forward for re-election.
Section 76 (1) of our Constitution states that the Prime Minister shall be the leader of the party which commands the support of the majority of members of the House of Representatives; or where it appears to the President that there is no undisputed leader or that no party commands the support of a majority, he shall appoint as Prime Minister the member of the House of Representatives who, in his judgment, is most likely to command the support of the majority of members of that House.
There are two points to note in this constitutional provision: (i) political parties are recognised in the Constitution and (ii) in the first instance it is the leader of a political party who is to be Prime Minister although in the second instance any member who can command the support of the majority may become Prime Minister.
Once the Prime Minister is appointed he/she then has control of the appointment of ministers and therein lies the greatest aspect of his/her constitutional power within the Government.
However within the party his power not only lies in his position as political leader but his control of the party is greatly increased if senior party members, particularly members of the controlling bodies of the party, are making their livelihood by employment or contracts which are under the control of the Prime Minister. For example, all ministers have employment (as ministers) which is directly under the control of the Prime Minister.
In the case of the COP it has been announced that only the leader and the chairman are authorised to speak for the party. Currently the leader of the COP is a minister in the Government. If the chairman is also a minister, or is receiving any stipend from Government, this will result in the persons authorised to speak for the party being both obligated to the Prime Minister for their financial well being; and will be under the collective responsibility of Cabinet.
Until now the chairman of the COP has been outspoken in matters of concern to the party even if this was at odds with the Government of which it is in partnership.
It is my view that he will now have a dilemma — if he keeps quiet he may be accused of not wanting to offend the Government and perhaps not properly representing the views of the party. On the other hand if he speaks out he may be seen as biting the hand that feeds him.
For good governance the Constitution must have some measure of control of political parties so long as they are recognised by the Constitution. One issue to be discussed in this regard is campaign financing.
There is much discussion in this country on the obligation of Governments to campaign financiers and how the country can be adversely affected by the linkage between such persons and the respective Governments in power.
There has been no discussion on the issues which I have raised in the past and do so again now in this article, and that is the power which a Prime Minister may have over the party. Particularly when there is a coalition, as is the People's Partnership, it is essential that the officials of the individual parties are independent and are perceived to be so. Otherwise the smaller units will sink into oblivion as is likely to happen with the COP.
The COP is not the only party that is subject to this problem. When I first wrote about it the People's National Movement was in power and many of the party officials held posts in Government.
In the case of the United National Congress the leader of the party is the Prime Minister (in accordance with our Constitution) and the chairman is a minister (in an important ministry).
What is the remedy? In the short term the parties themselves must take the voluntary action that no official of the party must be obligated in any way to the Prime Minister or the Government. Thus they should not accept appointments as Ministers or have contracts, ambassadorial appointments, legal briefs or other financial benefits from the State and, most particularly, from the Prime Minister. Alternatively if they do they must resign their posts as officials in the party.
In the longer term we are back to the need for constitutional reform. Thus the Constitution must ensure that no party official shall also hold appointments or otherwise be under financial benefit from Government.
Further when the Leader of the party is made Prime Minister he/she should have to resign as leader of the party. It might be suggested that this is interfering in the internal affairs of the parties which are private organisations.
However since political parties are mentioned in the Constitution they cannot be considered to be entirely private organisations. Further as I stated earlier in this article, there is the issue of campaign financing of parties which is controlled in some countries and should be here also.