Government Institutions

Government Institutions

Belize is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government based on the British model. The British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is the titular head of state and is represented in Belize by a governor general, a position held since independence by Minita Gordon. The governor general has a largely ceremonial role and is expected to be politically neutral. The constitution gives real political power to those who are responsible to the democratically elected House of Representatives, principally the cabinet and the prime minister. The constitution divides the government into three branches--the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Additionally, the civil, or "public," service is overseen by an independent Public Service Commission.

Executive

According to the constitution, executive authority is vested in the British monarch. The governor general and other subordinate officers, however, exercise executive authority on the monarch's behalf. The governor general must be a citizen of Belize and he or she serves at the pleasure of the queen, not subject to a fixed term of office. The governor general is appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister. The constitution sharply limits the executive authority of the governor general by stating that the governor general "shall act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet" except in cases in which the constitution or law states otherwise. On some matters, the governor general must consult with other government officials or authorities, but is not bound to act in accordance with their advice.

When appointing a prime minister, the governor general is to appoint "a member of the House of Representatives who is the leader of the political party which commands the support of the majority of the members of that House." If no party has a majority, the governor general is directed to appoint that member "who appears to him likely to command the support of the majority of the members," someone able to assemble a viable coalition government. The constitution empowers the governor general to remove the prime minister from office if a resolution of no confidence is passed by the House of Representatives and the prime minister fails within seven days to resign or advise the governor general to dissolve the National Assembly. If, for example, a party loses its majority in the House through the defection of its members to the opposition party during the life of a National Assembly, the governor general can inform the prime minister that he or she no longer commands a majority in the House, and the governor general is free to appoint a new prime minister.

The cabinet is composed of the prime minister and all other ministers of government. Except for the prime minister and the minister of finance, who must be members of the House of Representatives, cabinet members may come from either the House or the Senate. Neither the speaker of the House nor the president of the Senate, however, may be appointed to the cabinet. The governor general formally appoints the ministers and assigns them their portfolios within the cabinet, but must do so in accordance with the advice of the prime minister. The National Assembly has the power to create ministerial positions not specifically enumerated in the constitution or to delegate this power to the governor general acting on the advice of the prime minister.

The constitution guarantees the executive supremacy of the prime minister and the cabinet. It states that: The Cabinet shall be the principal executive instrument of policy with general direction and control of the Government and shall be collectively responsible to the National Assembly for any advice given to the Governor General by or under the general authority of the Cabinet and for all things done by or under the authority of any Minister in the execution of his office.

The governor general appoints as leader of the opposition a member of the House who commands the majority support of the opposition members, except in cases where there are no members of the House of Representatives who do not support the government. The leader of the opposition has the right to be consulted by the prime minister or to give binding advice to the governor general in the matter of some appointive government offices.

The Belize Advisory Council is an executive organ that serves as an independent body assisting the governor general. Its primary function is to give binding advice regarding the granting of pardons, commutations, stays of execution, and the removal of justices of appeal who are considered unable to carry out their duties or who have misbehaved in office. The council must have at least seven members including a chairman. The governor general appoints council members in accordance with the advice of the prime minister, who must consult with the leader of the opposition for all appointments and secure his or her concurrence in at least two of the appointments. The chairman must hold, have held, or be qualified to hold the office of judge of a superior court of record. In addition, at least two members must hold, or have held, high office within the government, and at least one must be a member of a recognized profession in Belize.

Legislature

Belize's National Assembly is a bicameral legislature composed of an elected House of Representatives and an appointed Senate. Chapter Six of the constitution charges the National Assembly with making "laws for the peace, order and good government of Belize." Following national elections, the National Assembly has a life of five years, unless the governor general dissolves it sooner. It must hold at least one session a year. In the event of war, the life of the National Assembly may be extended for one year at a time for up to two years. The governor general almost always exercises his power to dissolve the National Assembly in accordance with the advice of the prime minister, who generally seeks to dissolve the National Assembly at a time when he perceives the ruling party as likely to receive a new mandate from the electorate. Under certain circumstances, however, the governor general may act on his or her own judgment. The governor general may, for example, refuse to dissolve the National Assembly if he or she does not believe dissolution to be in the best interest of the country. A general election must be held within three months after the National Assembly has been dissolved, and senators are to be appointed as soon as practical after the election.

Qualifications for representatives and senators are similar. To be eligible for either chamber, a person must be a citizen of Belize, be at least eighteen years old, and have resided in Belize for at least one year immediately prior to his or her nomination (to the House) or appointment (to the Senate). Members of the armed forces or the police force are barred from serving in either chamber. People holding government office or appointment are barred from membership in the House of Representatives; they are barred from membership in the Senate only if the position is connected with the conduct of elections or compilation of the electoral register. People who are party to any contract with the government or the public service must declare publicly the nature of their contract before the election in order to qualify for election to the House. Potential appointees to the Senate must make such a disclosure to the governor general before their appointment. Sitting members of the National Assembly are also barred from holding government contracts unless the House (or the governor general in the case of senators) waives the ban.

The members of the House of Representatives and the Senate elect their presiding officers, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate respectively. Each chamber may choose one of its own members who is not a government minister, or it may choose some other Belizean citizen who is not a member of either the House or the Senate. A speaker elected from outside the House has no vote within the House of Representatives, but such a president of the Senate does. Both the speaker and the president must be at least thirty years old.

According to the constitution as amended in 1988, the country is to have no fewer than twenty-eight electoral districts, or divisions, each with a nearly equal number of eligible voters and the right to elect one House member. The constitution charges the Elections and Boundaries Commission with making recommendations to the National Assembly when it believes additional electoral divisions are needed. The National Assembly may then enact laws establishing the new divisions. When the constitution took effect in 1981, it mandated that the House would have eighteen elected members; the current number of electoral divisions, and hence elected representatives, was set at twenty-eight in October 1984. Not counting the presiding officer, a quorum of at least seven members is necessary for a sitting of the House of Representatives.

The Senate has eight members (nine, if the Senate elects its presiding officer from outside its membership) who are appointed by the governor general according to the following provisions: five are appointed in accordance with the advice of the prime minister; two with the advice of the leader of the opposition; and one with the advice of the Belize Advisory Council. Not counting the presiding officer, a quorum of three senators is necessary for a sitting of the Senate.

The House of Representatives or the Senate may introduce bills, except ones involving money. Passing a bill requires a simple majority among members who are present and voting. A bill that has been passed by both houses is presented to the governor general, who assents to the bill and publishes the measure in the official Government Gazette as law. The governor general's assent is purely pro forma, since he or she acts in accordance with the advice of the cabinet.

The Senate can normally be expected to pass a measure adopted by the House, since a majority of its members are appointed on the advice of the prime minister. Should the Senate, however, reject a measure or amend it in a manner unacceptable to the House, the House still has the power to enact the bill, as long as the Senate received the House's bill at least one month before the end of the session. To enact the bill, the House must pass the measure again at least six months later and in the next session of the National Assembly and send it to the Senate at least one month before the end of the session. Even if the bill is again rejected by the Senate, it still can be presented to the governor general for assent.

Bills involving money are handled under a more restricted procedure and with less opportunity for the Senate to delay them. Only the House of Representatives may introduced these bills. Laws related to taxes may be introduced by the House only with the recommendation or consent of the cabinet. Moreover, if the Senate fails to pass a finance bill without amendments within one month of receiving it from the House, and if the Senate received it at least one month before the end of the session, the bill is presented to the governor general for his or her assent despite the lack of Senate approval.

Laws that are introduced as a result of cabinet decisions are virtually guaranteed passage because the cabinet represents the majority party in the House. Moreover, PUP governments have commonly given all or nearly all PUP House members a cabinet position. The PUP cabinets have consequently constituted a majority of the House membership. Under these circumstances, once the cabinet has agreed on a course of action, debate on the floor of the House is largely irrelevant, since the constitutionally mandated collective responsibility of the cabinet obliges its members to support cabinet decisions on the floor or resign from the cabinet. In contrast, when the UDP won twenty-one seats in the twenty-eight-member House elected in 1984, Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel governed until 1989 with only an eleven-member cabinet, leaving ten other UDP members to be "backbenchers." Political analysts saw this introduction of the backbencher system (an element of the British parliamentary model), as strengthening the House as an institution vis-ŕ-vis the cabinet.

Judiciary

In the Belizean legal system, the judiciary is an independent branch of government. Among the basic legal protections afforded by the constitution to criminal defendants are a presumption of innocence until proven guilty; the rights to be informed of the nature and particulars of the charges, to defend oneself before an independent and impartial court within a reasonable amount of time, and to have the hearings and trial conducted in public; and guarantees against self-incrimination and double jeopardy. In more serious criminal cases, the defendant also has a right to a trial by jury.

Each of the six districts has a Summary Jurisdiction Court, which hears criminal cases, and a District Court, which hears civil cases. Both types of court of first instance are referred to as magistrates' courts because their presiding official is a magistrate. These courts have jurisdiction in less serious civil and criminal cases, but must refer to the Supreme Court more serious criminal cases, as well as any substantive legal questions. Magistrates' courts may impose fines and prison sentences of up to six months. Finding suitable magistrates has proven difficult, even though magistrates need not be trained lawyers. Vacancies have contributed to a backlog of cases and many prolonged acting appointments, a situation which, critics charge, has opened the courts to political manipulation. Law students returning to Belize for summer vacation or retired civil servants often fill the vacancies.

The Supreme Court has unlimited original jurisdiction in both civil and criminal proceedings. In addition to the more serious criminal and civil cases, the Supreme Court hears appeals from the magistrates' courts. The governor general appoints the head of the Supreme Court, the chief justice, "in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister given after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition." The governor general appoints the other justices, called puisne judges (of which there were two in 1989), "in accordance with the advice of the judicial and legal services section of the Public Service Commission and with the concurrence of the Prime Minister given after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition." Justices may serve until they reach sixty-two, the normal, mandatory retirement age, which may be extended up to the age of seventy. Justices may only be removed for failing to perform their duties or for misbehavior.

The Court of Appeal hears appeals from the Supreme Court. A president heads the Court of Appeal. The governor general appoints the president and the two other justices serving on the court "in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister given after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition." The constitution sets no fixed term of office for these justices but provides that their terms of office be fixed in their instruments of appointment.

In cases involving the interpretation of the constitution, both criminal and civil cases may be appealed by right beyond the Court of Appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. The Court of Appeal may also grant permission for such appeals in cases having general or public importance. The crown may grant permission for an appeal of any decision--criminal or civil--of the Court of Appeal.

Public Service

The independent Public Services Commission oversees the public service, which includes the Belize Defence Force (BDF). The Commission consists of a chairman and eighteen other members, including nine ex officio members ranging from the chief justice to the commissioner of police. The governor general appoints the chairman and unofficial members "acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister given after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition." Members of the National Assembly and holders of any public office (except ex officio members) may not be appointed to the commission until being out of office for at least two years. The normal term of office is three years, but the instrument of appointment may specify a shorter period, which must be at least two years. The Public Service Commission has the power to appoint people to public service positions and to discipline employees. The Public Services Commission also has responsibility for setting the code of conduct, fixing salaries, and generally managing the public service.

Under the British model of parliamentary government, public service employees are expected to execute the policies of the cabinet ministers who head the various executive ministries regardless of the ministers' political affiliations. In turn, public service employees are to be insulated from overt political pressure.

Local Government

The country is divided into six political districts, or subdivisions: Belize, Cayo, Corozal, Orange Walk, Stann Creek, and Toledo. No administrative institutions exist at the district level, however, and there is no regional government between the national government and the municipal and village councils.

Laws enacted by the National Assembly govern the municipal councils, which have limited authority to enact local laws. The primary role of the councils is to oversee sanitation, streets, sewers, parks, and other amenities, and to control markets and slaughterhouses, building codes, and land use. Their revenues come from property and other taxes set by the national government, as well as from grants from the national government. The largest of the eight municipal councils is the one for Belize City, which has a nine-member city council. The other seven municipal governments are the seven-member town boards in Benque Viejo del Carmen, Corozal, Dangriga, Orange Walk, Punta Gorda, San Ignacio, and San Pedro (on Ambergris Cay, off Corozal). Each municipal council elects a mayor from among its members, and elections for the municipal councils are held every three years. The PUP and UDP dominate the municipal elections, and candidates, often recruited on short notice, are highly dependent on their party. The use of at-large elections frequently results in one party winning all of the seats on a council, and this situation tends to make the local elections a popular referendum on the performance of the party in power at the national level. Aliens who have resided for three or more years in a given municipality may register to vote in the municipal elections.

Village councils are a more informal kind of local government. They are not created by law and thus are not vested with any legal powers or functions. Nevertheless, most villages have councils, which operate as community organizations promoting village development and educational, sporting, and civic activities. The village councils have seven members and are chosen every two years in elections overseen by the Ministry of Social Services and Community Development. These elections commonly take place in public meetings, often without voter registration lists or secret ballot. Their informality does not prevent the village councils from becoming politicized, however, and they are often a base of support for or opposition to the local representative in the House of Representatives.

A third form of local government, the alcalde (mayor) system, exists in a few Kekchí and Mopán Indian villages. Derived from the Spanish system of local government imposed on the Maya, the alcalde system is the only government institution in Belize that is not Anglo-Saxon in origin. Laws enacted in 1854 and 1884 gave the system a legal foundation. Since then, however, the system has declined, largely as the result of a delimitation and regularization of its authority in 1952, the growth of the cash economy, and the diminished importance of subsistence farming and communal labor. Coordination of communal labor had been a key function of the alcalde. Annual elections are held to select a first alcalde, a second alcalde, a secretary, and a village policeman. The alcalde has the right to judge disputes over land and crop damage. In minor cases, the alcalde has the authority to try and punish offenders. Decision making in the village is generally by consensus after village elders direct open discussion. Women do not participate in these public meetings.

In addition to these forms of local government, Belize grants certain exemptions and rights to three Mennonite communities that immigrated to Belize in the late 1950s and early 1960s. An agreement, or Privilegium (signed in December 1957 between the government and each community), spells out the exemptions, rights, and responsibilities of the Mennonite communities. Under the Privilegium, the Mennonite communities have the right to run their own churches and schools using the Low German language, and their members are exempt from military service, any social security or compulsory insurance system, and the swearing of oaths. In return, the Privilegium commits the Mennonites to invest in the country, be self-supporting, produce food for both the local and export markets, conduct themselves as good citizens, and pay all normal duties and taxes established by law. The Mennonite communities tax themselves in order to make lump-sum property tax payments to the government and to finance schools, and public works, and other internal operations. The communities legally register their land in the name of the community and restrict individual ownership of community land to members in good standing with the Mennonite Church. Other Mennonites also live in Belize with no special arrangements with the government.

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