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Belize

Legislature

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National Assembly building, Belmopan
Courtesy Steven R. Harper

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--vis the cabinet.

Data as of January 1992


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