Fixing election terms and political stability

While fixed term elections are commonplace in some countries, such as the United States, one of the vagaries of Westminster systems is that it remains the prerogative of the Crown to dissolve parliament. A parliament may not last more than 5 years from the date it was first elected, but there is nothing that prevents an election from occurring any time before that date.

And while it is the Crown’s prerogative to dissolve parliament and force a new election, we all know that in reality, the decision belongs to the Prime Minister. A longstanding criticism of this process is that countless PMs have called elections early, sometimes to take advantage of their party’s surge in the polls, or to exploit a weakened or divided opposition, etc.

On average, a parliament lasts about four years. Very few governments will drag out their term for the full five years allowed. Those that do are usually governments which know they will be defeated at the polls, and are simply trying to hold on to power for as long as possible – or, if you prefer, avoiding the inevitable for as long as possible.

Some parliamentary jurisdictions have been adopting fixed term election dates in recent years. A few Canadian provinces as well as the federal government have done so. Most recently, the new coalition government in the UK announced they too were adopting fixed term elections.

The Canadian jurisdictions have all set a four-year limit. For example, the first election held under fixed term election legislation in the province of Ontario was on October 10, 2007. The next provincial election is set for October 6, 2011.

No Canadian jurisdiction limits the right of the Crown to dissolve a parliament sooner than that, however. In a majority government situation, one would expect the sitting government to respect the fixed term election law. In a minority government situation, it is unlikely that the government would last the entire four years mandated by the legislation, which is why the Crown prerogative to dissolve parliament remains unaffected by the legislation. A loss of confidence of the House, usually results in an election call, although it doesn’t necessarily need to. The Crown can call on another party or coalition of parties to try to form the government. However, traditionally, minority governments don’t last much more than 18 months, and a lost vote of confidence normally means a trip to the polls.

The Liberal Conservative coalition in the UK has opted for fixed term election mandates of five years. This in itself is unusual, for the reasons stated above. The next UK election will be held, in theory at least, in May 2015. This is doubly ambitious if only because of the potential instability of the coalition government. A majority government would last 5 years easily. A minority government most likely would not. A coalition government? Most would probably lay their bets on the “not” option.

However, the coalition government decided to muddy the waters even further. While a vote of non-confidence will still require 50% plus one to pass, in order to dissolve parliament and force an election before May 2015, 55% of MPs will have to vote in favour of dissolution. This move has sparked much debate, consternation and confusion, both in the UK and abroad. Many (including yours truly initially) misunderstood the policy, believing a non-confidence motion would now require 55% to pass. And among those (including yours truly at first) who understood (or came to understand) that we were talking about two separate votes with two separate thresholds, the initial reaction for most was that this would lead to constitutional crisis. You’d have a government lose a non-confidence vote (50% + 1), but then it would require 55% to force an election. Utter chaos would ensue.

Or not. As stated previously, a loss of confidence does not necessarily result in an election. The Crown can call on another party or group of parties to form the government. The reality of the new UK House of Commons is that the two coalition partners together represent 55% of the seats. The 55% rule for dissolution means neither coalition partner can force an election. This might give some members of both parties pause should they become somewhat disillusioned with the coalition. They most likely would not be able to force an election, even if a successful non-confidence motion passed, so perhaps it would be best to try to make the coalition work.

Upon reflection, I am less convinced that the proposed 55% rule would result in political paralysis. The current opposition parties together add up to 44% of seats, therefore, even to force a vote of non-confidence, they would require 40 coalition members to vote against the coalition government (actually, they would require 45 coalition members since the five Sinn Fein members elected never take their seat). This could happen. The Liberal Democrats might decide that the coalition isn’t in their best interests and pull out. But even if a vote of non-confidence succeeded, the opposition parties including the LibDems still would not add up to 55%, and so would not be able to force the dissolution of parliament and a new election.

Undemocratic? In some ways, perhaps, but the reality of Westminster parliamentary systems is such that the system would be seen to be functioning the way it should if, following a vote of non-confidence in the coalition, the Conservatives then attempted to govern alone as a minority. That would be their right. Of course, a second vote of non-confidence could then defeat that government. And personally, I would tend to think that if that were to happen, Mr. Cameron would then instruct his members to vote for dissolution. Cameron is nothing if not pragmatic. A trip to the polls would be preferable to watching an even more unstable minority or coalition headed by the Labour party take over.

I’m not entirely sold on the 55% rule, but I do understand where it’s coming from. Both Cameron and Clegg seem genuinely determined to try to make the coalition government work, and given the serious issues facing the UK at the moment, the last thing the country needs is political instability and repeated trips to the polls. If MPs realise that a vote of non-confidence won’t automatically result in an election, they may prefer to simply abstain from voting on certain things rather than try to defeat the coalition. Also, let’s not forget that come September, Labour will have a new leader, and could very well be surging in the polls. The coalition will be making some very difficult economic and other decisions in coming months, which might mean their popularity will be on the downswing. The Conservatives have been out of power for 13 years, the Liberals even longer (74 years I believe?). I think both parties would prefer to try to make their mandate last the full five years (and hope that in that time their policy decisions start to pay off), then risk losing an early general election to a rejuvenated Labour party.

Again, undemocratic? Maybe, in some ways. But if it provides the UK with five years of stable government with the ability to deal with serious economic and other issues, perhaps necessary.

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