Political Arrangements in the Commonwealth Caribbean

The Political arrangement in the Caribbean is one spawned from the British Westminster system and though somewhat modified it still is one that lends to the authoritarian rule of the executive. The main features of the system are a fusion of powers; that is, an amalgamation of the executive and the legislature arms of government, a bicameral legislature where the powers are unequal and dissimilar in nature and composition. The Westminster system also has inbuilt a lack of checks and balances, these checks and balances are however found in the American Presidential system with its separation of powers. The System is also based on majority rule which results from the first-pass the post model instead of a sharing of power, so that a party that wins the election with a small majority can still form a government without first coming to an agreement with other parties. There also exists the notion of collective responsibility. With the process of first past the post, lays the possibility of one party taking all the seats in the house and thereby eliminating the check that could possibly be provided by the opposition.

One glaring difference however, is the existence of a written constitution and the governor general as the head of state instead of the Queen. There exist in 3 of the English speaking territories a Republican system of government with a president as head of state but there is still much that remains the same as the president wields no greater power than that of the Governor General.

The Prime Minister, who has often been described as primus inter pares or first among equals, has extensive powers which give him great opportunity to control and influence the decisions of his colleagues, who either go along with him or her or face demotion in the form of back benching or dismissal. He presides over both the legislative and executive branches of government and in his role as Prime Minister he, along with his cabinet set the agenda for the country both nationally and internationally. He also appoints the members of the Senate, and determines who will sit in his cabinet. He sets their ministerial portfolios and can change them at will. There have been reviews done of the constitutional arrangement but this has only served to strengthen the powers of the Prime Ministers and done little to further the rights of the citizens, an example of this is in the case of the 1980 constitutional change in Guyana, which has provided for a presidential executive system. Under the new arrangement, the political accountability of the president to the national assembly is virtually removed. Also, a review of article 182 of the 1980 constitution shows that the president enjoys substantial immunities against impeachment. The Prime Minister can also call elections at any time and unless removed by election, no confidence motion or death can hold office for any length of time. It can be theorize that locally the Prime Minister has more power than the President, one lecturer in the Department of Government, Cave Hill Campus, noted that he acts to some degree as a demi-god.

Parliament, which is described as devalued, is bicameral. It is made up of the House of Assembly – the lower House and the Senate – the upper House. It must be noted that the House of Assembly, where the Prime Minister wields most of his power, is the more powerful of the two houses. Members of the senate are not elected but are as previously noted, appointed and thus do not face elections. As seen in the case of Barbados, the Prime Minister can draw from these persons to hold ministerial portfolios and replacing elected members who were duly chosen by the public. One can argue that the elected persons still function in the capacity of constituency representative and thus if not holding a portfolio still function in the required capacity, but one can question the fairness of non-elected members hold portfolios.

The judiciary which is usually subordinated to the executive offers virtually no checks on the executive power. Few Caribbean states with presidential systems established autonomous judiciaries with legislative review powers. According to Michael Collier, most judiciaries in the Caribbean are dependent upon their executives, where they rely upon them for their funding, appointments, promotions, and disciplinary actions, this makes the judiciaries feel compelled to support their executives at any cost. The Prime Minister also appoints the members of the judiciary, and is also responsible for making law along with his cabinet. The significance of this is that even though the judiciary has some autonomous flexibility, they must enforce the laws set out by the Prime Minister.

Cynthia Barrow-Giles in her book, Introduction to Caribbean Politics, speaks to the awesome powers of the regional prime minister noting that:

Concerns over the powers of the heads of government reverberate across the region. …The superordinate constitutional authority of the prime ministers lends itself to autocratic decision making similar to that which obtains under colonial government with powerful colonial governors. (Barrow-Giles, 2002, pg. 129)

With all the foregoing being said the Political system does provide for a mighty executive as there is little to offer a counterbalance. One can say that the Governments of the Caribbean operate with impunity under the Westminster system. With this model they face a number of challenges in terms of the level of accountability with which the governments have and the penalties in place for governments that have breached the trust of the people.

Corruption is defined by Arnold Heidenheimer as “perversion or destruction of integrity in the discharge of public duties by bribery or favour", and unless systems are put in place to deal with it, governments across the Caribbean will continue to behave in a manner that does little to help the majority of its citizenry. In some Caribbean states in particular, Antigua and Trinidad & Tobago the practice of using one’s office as a bargaining tool has seen the two States being brought into the spotlight in a demeaning way. Worst yet the Statesmen involved are prominent and hail from a long family tradition of parliamentarians. The family and friends circles and the geographical layout with reference to the population sizes render it very important in identifying the reasons for the lack in ethical reasoning. The question is whether these circumstances encourage or create refuge for persons who hold public positions of trust. As the Commonwealth Secretariat notes that the persons who pay the greater price for this bad governance or corruption is the poor.

Some remedies can be to give back bone or teeth to the office of the Ombudsman which is supposed to be a mediator between the government and the citizens along with the law courts. The office of the ombudsman investigates complaints made by the public against government and offer recommendations of action. In Barbados the office of Ombudsman has been quite to the point of non-existence, and is quite ineffectual.

There is also the remedy of diffusing some of the powers held by the Prime Minister. If he his powers are constitutionally lessened, and made to be checked similar to that of the President in the United State, it would offer the citizens a better opportunity for good governance. The Prime Minister and his cabinet, as well as the Parliament must be more accountable to its citizenry and the actual set up and enforcement of the Integrity Commission would ensure that this occurs.

Some territories have sought to redress the problem by establishing local government, as in the case of Guyana, but this has still not been fully effective as there is still great control of the local government officials by the national political arm. In Barbados there is the establishment of the constituency councils, but criticism has been leveled at the area of appointment of the heads of these councils by Ministers of government. It is argued that these bodies will not function independently, but will be beholden to the current government, and those who are supporters of the other government will be disadvantaged.

Whilst the Opposition is supposed to offer some form of check on the ruling government, this only extends to as long as they are out of power. There is not much that differs in ideologies of the parties and as a result sometime does not do an effective job. The media can therefore with the proper change in legislation, or privatizing of the media houses, hold the government more accountable, and be a greater information tool to the general public. Most times change does not come because people are unaware of matters in the country and therefore do not agitate for change.

The Commonwealth Secretariat offers some solutions for stemming bad governance are access by the media of government finances, full disclosure of family finances, strengthening the parliamentary public accounts committee and full disclosure and examination of government finances.

Olga Nazario notes in a paper, A Strategy Against Corruption, that the Caribbean’s modest resources make fighting corruption a priority. The devastating impact of waste, fraud and inefficiency on these countries’ economies, social development and political systems is much greater than on countries with abundant resources. (Nazario, 2007) She further notes that Dr. Trevor Munroe frequently reminds us that, despite the hardships, the Caribbean states “remain distinctive in the extent of stable party governance, the frequency of free and fair elections, the normal exchange of power when oppositions accede to office by constitutional means and in the absence of one-party dictatorship, police-military rule, civil war and political assassinations." For this to continue and even improved, it is necessary that the measures outlined above to be implemented and swiftly.

Whilst it is not always that authoritarian leadership results in a backward or corrupt society, as sometimes for progress to be made, it is at times necessary for the government to act in this manner, but when high handed behaviours lead to a corrupt society all must be down to eradicate it.