IT is always interesting to try to describe and comment upon an election in a Commonwealth country for non-Commonwealth readers, the Commonwealth being the somewhat loose consortium of former British colonies which more or less share the British political and electoral system. More so when the election took place in the United Kingdom itself.
Unlike in an American-inspired electoral system whereby the chief executive (president) is elected separately from the members of the legislative branch (congress) as in the Philippines, British voters only get to elect their members of parliament (legislature). After a general election, the leader of the party commanding the majority will typically be appointed by a non-executive head of state (the British Queen) to be the prime minister and form a new government. In this sense, the legislative and executive powers are actually fused, with only a long (but unwritten) constitutional tradition to serve as check and balance.
And the British general election held earlier this month was actually not a “necessary” one. In the British past (and many other Commonwealth countries’ present), parliaments had a maximum term of five years but might be dissolved at any time to pave the way for a new round of general elections. But since 2011, British parliaments are supposed to be fixed-term five-year ones, with earlier general elections triggered only when a two-third parliamentary majority approves it. And that was indeed done with an overwhelming majority in the last parliament, which was barely two years into its term, with three more to spare.
The British prime minister, Theresa May, inherited her post with a slim parliamentary majority of only five and a close referendum result in favor of British exit from the European Union (Brexit). She needed a stronger parliamentary showing for her party, the Conservatives, for both domestic and external reasons. Domestically, even within the Conservative ranks, the Brexit decision was not an easy nor unanimous one, and a weak parliamentary majority could “embolden” some of her own party colleagues, since their potential withdrawal of support for the government could at least in theory trigger the downfall of the latter. Externally, having invoked the official exit clause in the EU treaty, the UK is about to embark upon extensive rounds of Brexit negotiations with the EU over the next two years. And as such, a stronger parliamentary majority will in a sense strengthen May’s hand in the negotiation process. So, May calculated that a general election almost the eve of the opening of the Brexit negotiations would have the maximum impact at home and abroad.
For the opposition Labor party, the support for an earlier general election was equally fervent (as evidenced in the overall supermajority in parliament approving earlier polls), but for contradictorily self-serving reasons. The Labor leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a well-known hard leftist who won his party’s leadership contest not with the strong support of his parliamentary colleagues but on the back of many ordinary Labor members, with murmurs of criticism for his excessively socialist antics often heard among Labor members of parliament; some even accused Corbyn of destroying the party’s chances among the electorate. So, Corbyn was also anxious to prove his worth by leading his party to an electoral victory. So too were his parliamentary colleagues who were perhaps somewhat perversely anticipating a huge Labor electoral defeat that would trigger Corbyn’s stepping down to take responsibility for the loss, as is the wont in British political tradition, so that they could then choose someone with a more centrist outlook to lead the party.
But as it turns out, Corbyn was perhaps the largest winner on election night. For although still falling far short of a parliamentary majority, Labor scored increases both in the number of parliamentary seats and in popular votes. So, all the calls for Corbyn to step down almost instantaneously reverted to congratulatory messages. Instead, it was May who found herself in deep water, so to say. For the Conservatives not only did not achieve a higher parliamentary majority, but it actually fell below the majority threshold. In British political parlance, this is called a “hung parliament” where no single party commands an outright majority. By tradition, the leader of the largest parliamentary party is given the first right to find a partner party with enough seats to cross the majority threshold and thus form a coalition government. This happened during May’s predecessor David Cameron’s first term, when the Conservatives formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. This time around, May is banking on a minor party from Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist, to form a coalition.
The more profound implications of the British election will undoubtedly be felt at the Brexit negotiating table in Brussels. Now that May has to scramble for enough support to form a government, with promises and compromises to be made even within her own party, it is difficult to imagine the British being able to assume a strong negotiating position. Calls for either “hard” or “soft” Brexit will resonate in both London and Brussels.