Independents and govt formation

Focus, Normal

The Nationa, Monday July 16th, 2012

AN opportunity looms once more for the formation of another coalition government.  It is expected that the independents would flex their muscles yet again. 
The Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates (OLLIPAC), as expected, has upheld the rights of individuals here to run unattached to political parties. 
As in the past, independents are expected to perform with relatively more freedom than parties during coalition formation after the writs are returned on July 27. 
Political parties, if they have the option to do so, can elect not to consider independents. 
With 46 parties competing in this year’s ge­neral elections and a high number of independent candidates, it is highly likely that independents will feature in the formation of government early next month. 

Practice as a strategy
There are many reasons why candidates decide to contest elections as independents. 
One would hear explanations such as a candidate’s unwillingness to associate with a party since he or she does not favour what existing parties represent. 
Or, a candidate has a proclaimed set of principles that is incompatible with partisan politics. 
Explanations aside, actions speak louder than words and we find independents going against their words with the duration of time, and especially during the heat of coalition formation. 
We are led to believe that the main reason why candidates seek office as independents is because it allows them maximum mobility among different parliamentary factions. 
Specifically, the independent status allows a candidate to be free of party commitments du­ring the coalition formation stage in parliament. 
This makes the newly elected member of parliament (MP) available to party groups that stand a reasonable chance of forming the next government. 
For many candidates with narrow agendas to elicit goods and services for their respective electorates, they take pride in their pragmatic lack of a party affiliation. 
Says one independent candidate: “I’m indepen­dent and stand on my personal popularity and character. 
“The voters will choose me because I am well known, well liked, honest, trustworthy and have a strong group of supporters in my clan and tribe. 
“If I win, I may join the winning party, hold a ministry and bring great benefits to my community, tribe, district and province.” 
It would be superfluous and false to assume that such words represent the desires of all independent candidates. 
However, it would most certainly rank as one of the few credible reasons to explain why independents would wish to remain aloof from party commitments until the government formation stage.  

Independents under the OLLIPAC
If the OLLIPAC was meant to curb the destabi­lising problem of perpetual realignments of parties and individual MPs, the status of independents stick out as a sore thumb. 
Perhaps the indepen­dent status was expected to wither away as political parties show more assertiveness under the law. 
It definitely demonstrates that the fundamental right of “freedom of choice” reigns supreme. 
This was certainly the case when the Supreme Court nullified certain provisions of the OLIPPAC in July 2010 principally to protect the constitutional rights of MPs. 
Specifically, the provisions that were struck out were those that stipulated that an MP that voted to elect the prime minister in the first parliamentary sitting should not vote against the person (ie the prime minister) in three critical areas in the life of the five-year parliamentary term:
(a)    A vote of no-confidence against the prime minister that he/she originally voted for;
(b)    A vote on the national budget; and
(c)    A vote on possible amendments on the National Constitution. 
The OLIPPAC is yet to be amended after the 2010 Supreme Court ru­ling, and therefore, it remains vulnerable to the type of self-calculated and conniving politics that originally necessita­ted the design of this law.
Among the pertinent questions that can be pondered is the following: if government instability was the debilitating problem that necessitated the passage of the OLLIPAC at the first instance, is the existence of independents mitigating the effectiveness of this particular law? 
The question is not so much what independents
intend to do from their solitary positions. 
Rather, it comes down to how some of them react in sinister ways to incentives at their disposal, compared to their colleagues under parties. 
It is tough enough that many of the 40-odd parties are competing to win as many seats as possible in during polling. 
Now we have independents – just like in previous elections – expressing their desires that they should band together to dictate the face of the next coalition government. 

formation scenarios 
Section 63(1) of the OLIPPAC says that the head of state, acting on advice from the Electoral Commission, will invite the party that secures the most seats in the elections to form the government. 
The subsequent step is the nomination of a candidate for the prime minister’s post. 
Where parties are willing to collaborate, the choice of a candidate is likely to be known ahead – well before they enter parliament. 
The situation, however, will be tricky if a fluid coalition, or the absence of such an arrangement, takes place as they enter parliament to vote a prime minister. 
The leading party’s candidate may not garner the required number on the floor of parliament. 
Section 64 (7-a) would then be invoked where parliament would now elect a prime minister “in accordance with Standing Orders of the parliament”. 
Now consider another scenario where there is collusion by other parties and independents to deprive the most successful party the opportunity to form the government.   
Consider another situa­tion: what if two or more parties secure equally the highest number of seats? 
If this happens, section 63(2) says that a similar invitation will be given by the head of state, again acting on advice from the Electoral Commission, to the party that captures “the highest votes declared in the election to form the go­vernment”. 
Reliance on the num­ber of votes alone can expose certain significant questions particularly at
a time when there are now nationwide issues with the credibility of the electoral rolls.    
More critical is the timing if independents were to decide to join parties before the first parliamentary sitting.
Section 69(2) reads: “A member of the parliament elected at a general election without endorsement by a registered political party may join a registered political party at any time after the return of the writs and before the first election by the parliament of a speaker following the date of the return of the writs in that general election provided that the registered political party had endorsed candidates at that general election”. 
This means that independents have the latitude to swing numbers during the formation of a coalition government in the very first parliamentary sitting. 
Is this a window for smaller parties to swell their ranks with independents well before the invited party exercises its right to form a new go­vernment? 
Would parties with sinister motives band together to deprive the invited party to form the new government by withholding their numbers and thereby forcing
a vote for a prime minister under Standing Orders?
And in a worst case scenario, what if independents receive mone­tary gains at this time to swing alliances to parties at the government formation stage? 
Let us give the benefit of doubt to our indepen­dent elected leaders and trust that they are smart enough and level headed not to fall prey to money politics. 
Amidst the uncertainty and fluidity of party politics, expectation from the country is large in that they should play their part to stabilise parliamentary politics and perform their duties in the wider interest of the people. 
There are some very prominent candidates who have contested as independents and the country’s eyes are upon them to stand up and be counted at this time. 

l Dr Henry Okole is a senior research fellow at the PNG National Research Institute. The views expressed here do not represent the views of the NRI.