Published On: Thu, Nov 2nd, 2017

The risks of the game

arjen van rijn - linkedinBy Arjen van Rijn

It is a familiar pattern in St. Maarten: the incumbent cabinet loses its majority in the Parliament. Every year it’s the same story. In September 2015 two ship jumpers crossed over to the opposition for inexplicable reasons while Prime Minister Marcel Gumbs was unaware of this, sitting in a plane flying back from New York. The rumor at the time was that this was about financial gain. The new majority wanted to start governing immediately after the crisis of confidence had been formalized. After many controversies an interim-cabinet was established and a year later there were elections.

This week Gumbs’ successor Marlin threatens to lose the confidence of the Parliament. (This is in the meantime a fact – ed.).

This time it is not about unclear reasons but about a fundamental difference of opinion that justifies a split between government and Parliament. Until last Monday, Marlin refused to accept the conditions the Netherlands demanded for providing financial aid for the reconstruction – the establishment of an Integrity Chamber and strengthening of border control.

Shortly before the deadline of October 31, Marlin reluctantly started to make a move. But the Democratic Party, led by Parliament’s President Sarah Wescot-Williams and a member of the USp-faction (Chanel Brownbill – ed.) considered this turnaround at the eleventh hour “too little, too late.” Together with opposition party UP they are ready to bring down the Marlin-cabinet.

The motion of no confidence was scheduled for a meeting on Wednesday but that did not happen because Marlin suddenly offered a national cabinet in an attempt to prevent that St. Maarten ends up for quite some time in an administrative impasse where by the kingdom government could issue a general measure of kingdom administration. Marlin apparently wanted to become the prime minister of such a national cabinet and that seemed to be unacceptable for the new coalition.

Just like two years ago, also this time around the question will be: now what? It is not difficult to answer that question. Just like the other countries in the kingdom, St. Maarten has a Parliamentary system. That system provides clear rules for the way a crisis of confidence between government and Parliament has to be resolved.

The main rule is that a cabinet has to offer its resignation when it loses the confidence of a majority in Parliament. The government then has to step aside for the Parliament. That law is written in stone in the State Regulations of St. Maarten, Curacao and Aruba. For the Parliament nothing changes in principle. Once you’re elected, you remain elected.

The only thing the Parliament has to do is see if there is a new majority that is prepared to form a new government. In practice, the Governor makes sure that this process goes smoothly, but that is not a hard rule. The Parliament is also allowed to do it all by itself, as we have seen in the Netherlands as well during the past couple of years. The king does not come into the picture there anymore; he only does the signatures, the oath and the scene on the terrace.

In the context of checks and balances the cabinet that has been sent home also has a weapon: it has the reversed right to dissolve the Parliament and to call elections within three months. This right is also anchored in the state regulation. When the Parliament hits, the government can hit back.

The right to dissolve the Parliament is meant to be a useful weapon to prevent that the Parliament acts too fast and terminates its confidence in the government too soon. After all, the result could be that those who withdraw their confidence return weakened or not at all after the elections. The Parliament has to think this through thoroughly and decide whether it is prepared to use this instrument; it does not know how the government will react.

The confidence rule and the right to dissolve the Parliament are therefore two sides of the same medal. In the end this benefits the system’s stability; the government and the Parliament balance each other.

The right to dissolve the Parliament does not come with conditions. Executing this right does not depend on permission from the Parliament or from the question whether it benefits citizens that they have to go to the polls again. The Governor of St. Maarten had a different opinion two years ago.

The dismissed cabinet can decide to do what it thinks is right, it can thwart the wishes of the Parliament just like that and thus prevent that there is a normal change of the guard for the remainder of the period the Parliament is in office. No matter how unwise this would be given the current situation in St. Maarten: it is allowed. This does however not mean that the cabinet that was sent home can do what it wants. Firstly there will be elections within three months; the conflict will therefore be put to the electorate. The dismissed cabinet is in the meantime only allowed to handle current affairs and is not allowed to make new policy. Furthermore, the Parliament has the right not to wait for the elections and to install immediately an interim-cabinet for the period up to the elections.

In the current constellation in St. Maarten there can be every reason for such an interim-cabinet. Time is pressing: St. Maarten must be able to begin as soon as possible with the reconstruction and it desperately needs the money from the Netherlands. All conditions the Netherlands has demanded must be met as soon as possible.

So far, the Marlin cabinet has only shown resistance and dawdling. An interim-cabinet can break through this dawdling and win precious time. Nobody forbids that interim-cabinet to make agreements about the reconstruction with the Netherlands as soon as possible and to accept the Dutch conditions. That way, the General Measure of Kingdom Administration can also be prevented.

It is up to the Parliament – and nobody else – to decide whether it wants such an interim-cabinet. That is what happened in Curacao in 2012, when the new majority in Parliament did not want to leave the outgoing Schotte-cabinet one more day in power. The Governor had to cooperate, in spite of Schotte’s objections. The change of the guard resulted in the very successful Betrian-cabinet. In St. Maarten Marcel Gumbs had to step aside in October 2015 with elections on the horizon; that change of power was in terms of results a lot less spectacular.

The scenarios in case of a loss of confidence are therefore clear. Or there is immediately a new government for the next three years, or there are new elections, if need be with an interim-cabinet until that time. In both cases the new team can act decisively and in both cases it is ‘time over’ for the Marlin-cabinet. But that is simply one of the risks of the game.

Source: Arjen van Rijn, Antilliaans Dagblad | Translated by Hilbert Haar

The author is a professor in Constitutional Law and Constitutional Eeform at the University of Curacao.