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Benchmarks for a democratic Parliament

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Democracy in any country requires a strong Parliament.

As the central institution of democracy, parliaments embody the will of the people in government, and carry all their expectations that democracy will be truly responsive to their needs and help solve the most pressing problems that confront them in their daily lives.

Views differ on the characteristics of a strong Parliament since the historical, social and political context of each Parliament is unique.

However, there is now international consensus that despite these differences, there are certain standards that have to be met if Parliament is to be described as strong and democratic.

A lot of work has been put in developing international benchmarks for democratic legislatures.

Prominent works include the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures; the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Parliament and Democracy in the 21st Century:

A Guide to Good Practice; the Inter-Parliamentary Union’ Self –assessment Toolkit for Parliaments and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs’ discussion document:

Towards the Development of International Standards for Democratic Legislatures.

Parliaments from the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) region have not been left behind – they have gone very far in developing their own benchmarks for democratic legislatures in southern Africa.

The project is being coordinated by the Sadc Parliamentary Forum.

I will comment on some of these benchmarks as they apply to Zimbabwe.

On the representativeness of Parliament, the Sadc PF benchmarks or good practices begin with the electoral process.

The document says the electoral system shall be such as to ensure that the composition of Parliament reflects the will of the people as expressed through a voting process conducted in accordance with regional norms and standards for elections.

This is particularly important for Zimbabwe as we implement constitutional and electoral reforms.

I am not concerned too much about when elections will be held.

What is of paramount importance is that the elections have to be free and fair in order for those serving in Parliament and the Executive to have a full mandate from the people.

The current coalition government has no mandate from the people, and that is why it has failed to meet its own benchmarks as stipulated in the Global Political Agreement.

It is therefore important for all Zimbabweans to participate in the processes of writing a new constitution and reforming electoral laws in order to set a good basis for the conduct of genuine, credible and transparent elections and the emergence of a truly representative Parliament.

The benchmarks on the legislative process will certainly strengthen most parliaments in the region if they were to be adopted.

As the most basic function of any Parliament, the benchmarks recommend that the approval of Parliament is required for the passage of all legislation and that decrees shall not be used to by-pass Parliament’s legislative function.

The benchmarks also give Parliament the right to override an executive veto.

These benchmarks in other words try to curtail presidential powers in the law making process.

Presidential powers are a very big problem and have weakened the legislative power of most parliaments in the Sadc region.

The problem is more serious in Zimbabwe.

Our Constitution states that when a Bill is presented to the president for assent; he shall either approve it or withhold his approval.

If he withholds his assent, the Bill has to be returned to Parliament.

After six months the House of Parliament can resolve through a motion supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of all members to present the Bill back to the president for assent.

In this case he has two options: approve the bill or dissolve Parliament.

Comparisons with other African countries will demonstrate why I am saying Zimbabwe’s position is worse.

In the new Constitution of Kenya, the president has to assent to a Bill within seven days and not the long 21 days as in Zimbabwe’s case.

He can withhold his assent but note in writing the reasons why the action has been taken.

Parliament through two-thirds majority can either amend the Bill to incorporate the President’s recommendations or re-submit for assent without any amendments.

The President will be obliged to approve and does not have the option to dissolve Parliament.

The same applies to Uganda. Section 91 of their Constitution provides for bills to become law without the assent of the president provided they have been passed by two-thirds of the members.

Article 56 of the Constitution of the Republic of Namibia also allows bills to become law provided two-thirds of the members have passed it on re-submission to the president for assent.

Those drafting the new constitution should take great note.

On financial and budgetary powers, the benchmarks recommend a reasonable time for Parliament to review the proposed budget, align needs with the resource base, equitably distribute resources and set national priorities.

I understand the Ministry of Finance is currently trying to implement budget process reforms.

This is most welcome. But while the new Public Finance Management Act is a step in the right direction, it suffers from lack of enforcement.

We all know that the national budget has largely been fast-tracked in Parliament, rendering the legislative branch a rubber-stamping institution.

It is important for the responsible authorities to take note of the OECD best practice guidelines which suggest presentation of the draft budget no less than three months prior to the start of the financial year.

The benchmarks also recommend the setting up of independent and professional parliamentary budget offices to address issues of lack of capacity within Parliament to process complex budgetary information.

I am happy that the idea is gathering steam within the Zimbabwe Parliament.

This will go a long way in revamping public finance management.

The United States Congress, Philippines Parliament, Canada, Kenya and Uganda are some of the examples of parliaments with fully functional and effective parliamentary budget offices. Closer home, South Africa and Malawi are in the process of establishing one.

I would like to end by saying while there are no meaningful and universally applicable statistical or similar measurements of parliamentary performance, the benchmarks can assist parliaments to identify their strengths and weaknesses against international criteria in order to determine priorities for strengthening the parliamentary institution.

John Makamure is the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust.
Feedback: johnma@sapst.org

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