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New Beginning for Ghana’s Parliament

BY: Dr Emmanuel Akwetey (IDEG) & Dr Kofi Takyi Asante (ISSER)
Alban Bagbin
Alban Bagbin

As Parliament prepares to resume sitting on Tuesday, January 25, 2022, it is our hope that this new year would mark a new beginning where consensus-building would replace the usual winner-takes-all politics in the House.

The first session of the Eighth Parliament has not been edifying. It started with chaos over the election of the Speaker in January 2021 and degenerated into a brawl over the voting on the Electronic Transaction Levy (E-Levy) Bill just before the House went on recess in December 2021.

These shameful events occurred because even though we have a split Parliament, the business of the House has been conducted in a majoritarian manner. The current environment of political and physical attacks is not conducive for consensus-building and needs to change.

Split Parliament

At the heart of the current impasse are disagreements about the standing orders. The standing orders were devised to fit a majoritarian system where the governing party also has a clear majority in the House.

In the past, the issue of the voting status of the deputy Speakers and their assumed neutrality when occupying the chair was not controversial. But under the current circumstances where a single vote could be the deciding factor as to whether a bill is passed or rejected, this has become a very contentious issue.

The vote of the First Deputy Speaker in this hung Parliament is virtually the life support of the sitting government. And the current crisis has arisen because in the framing of the standing orders, a split parliament scenario did not seem to have been anticipated.

With three more years to go in this mandate period, it is important to gain clarity on the standing orders and to reach an authoritative understanding about the voting status of the deputy Speakers when they are occupying the seat of the Speaker.

But beyond that, we need to develop new standard operating procedures that are appropriate for all three parliamentary scenarios, namely a clear majoritarian Parliament, a split Parliament and a situation where the sitting government does not have the majority in Parliament.

Consensus building

The outcome of the 2020 parliamentary election is a clear indication that Ghanaians want to see both sides of the house working together to build consensus. To be able to do this, both parties should be able to sit together, engage in dialogue and show a genuine willingness to compromise.

In this split Parliament, it is not feasible for either party to hold an entrenched position and absolutely insist on having its way.

What the MPs need to do, instead, is to engage in good faith dialogue where each side shows a willingness to compromise in order to arrive at a consensus. Both sides of the House need to come to an agreement that they would refrain from rushing to vote on issues.

The vote should only come after a decision has been reached by consensus. The process of developing our democracy requires such processes of compromise and dialogue.

Unfortunately, the government is approaching the issue in a majoritarian manner and the opposition feels frustrated because the government does not have the numbers to justify its majoritarian posture.

Without building consensus, this impasse is likely to drag on and we may see even more of such stalemates and violent outbursts in the remaining three years of this mandate period. At the same time, the approval of ministers, as well as the 2021 budget are proof that it is possible even in this split Parliament for both sides of the House to build consensus, and we hope to see more of such consensus-building in the next three years.

Enabling environment

Parliament already has mechanisms that support consensus-building. Parliament works best in the committees where MPs from both sides can sit down, deliberate issues and arrive at solutions that are acceptable to all sides.

By contrast, discussions in the plenary are often characterised by political posturing and showmanship. We call on our MPs to do extensive deliberations in the committees before appearance on the plenary.

As the impasse in Parliament escalated, traditional leaders, CSOs and other stakeholders spoke out publicly about the need for both sides to come together to resolve their differences. Unfortunately, no state actor or institution such as the Council of State, spoke out or tried to bring the two sides together.

Neither did the President, whose budget was at stake and who could have convened a meeting with the Minority to work out an agreeable path forward. Going forward, the Council of State, as a state institution, must intervene during such crucial periods to reassure the public and to restore calm.

This stalemate has also thrown into sharp relief the need to reform the country’s local governance system. Amending the existing institutional framework for local governance to allow for political parties to participate in local governance, would forestall such parliamentary impasse in the future by laying the groundwork for consensus building between the governing and opposition parties before such issues go to Parliament.

When such a reform is implemented, parties that lose the presidential election still have the opportunity to exercise executive power at the local level. This would require that the President and his regional ministers would have to co-govern with MMDCEs from different parties in the Regional Security Councils (REGSECs) and the District Security Councils (DISECs).

At the same time, consensus on crucial matters such as budgeting and revenue mobilisation would be reached at the executive level (both central and local) and cross-party consensus would have to be arrived at before the relevant bills reach Parliament.

Violence in Parliament

We call for an independent investigation into the brawl that broke out on the floor of the House and all those found culpable must be duly sanctioned to send a strong message that not even our elected representatives are above the law.

The physical altercation that took place during the election of the Speaker must also be investigated. At the same time, MPs who are threatening to ‘turn Parliament into a boxing ring’ if they do not have their way or their opponents maintain their posture must be immediately called to book.

The Kenyan Parliament has set a good example by promptly suspending an MP who assaulted his colleague during a debate in December 2021.

It needs to be made clear that MPs have no business engaging in violence. The origin of the term Parliament (derived from ‘parler’, the French word meaning ‘to talk’) should tell us that the august House should be a forum for reasoned exchange of ideas and rigorous debate. Our fragile democracy is being endangered by the totally unparliamentary acts of violence in the House.

There are legitimate avenues open to members of the Legislature to register their displeasure with their opponents in the House. Members of Parliament could vote against bills they disagree with, undertake boycotts or walkouts or engage in public debates as a means of shifting public attitudes on any issue at stake.

But threatening violence is an unparliamentary course of action and amounts to gangsterism, which is no different
from holding a gun to your opponent’s head in Parliament! There should be zero-tolerance for threats of violence coming from members of the august House of Parliament.

We are counting on our elected leaders to put the national interest first and to demonstrate a deeper commitment to democratic culture, while restoring confidence in our democratic institutions.