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close this bookThe Courier N 128 July - August 1991 - Dossier : Human Rights- Democracy-Development Country Reports: Benin, Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1991, 96 p.)
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View the documentHuman rights, democracy and development
View the document‘Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside’
View the documentInterview with Dr. Erskine Simmonds, Vice-President of the ACP-EEC Joint Assembly
View the documentInterview with Henry Saby, Chairman of the Development Committee of the European Parliament
View the documentAmnesty International - The international conscience for 30 years
View the documentThe African Charter on Human and People’s Rights
View the documentBuilding democracy with tribalism
View the documentDemocracy in the English speaking Caribbean
View the documentDemocracy and development
View the documentDevelopment and the African political heritage
View the documentSome thoughts on governance and democratisation
View the documentTransition to democracy is there a model?

Democracy in the English speaking Caribbean

The upsurge in democratic sentiment which has transformed the world’s political landscape over the last five years has certainly been dramatic. Some political scientists are tempted to characterize this as a sea-change which represents the final triumph of democracy and its attendant liberal economic philosophy, over authoritarianism and central planning. While such a conclusion may be premature - with many infant democracies facing formidable challenges which could threaten the whole process - the prevailing wind continues to farour political pluralism. Within the ACPs, the main impact of this sudden democratic renaissance is being seen in Africa. Elsewhere, and notably in the Caribbean, -democracy has followed a more evolutionary course and, at the beginning of the 1990s, the pluralistic tradition is already well established.

In this article, we focus on the democratic systems in the English-speaking Caribbean, with a view to identifying their principal characteristics and to assessing their effectiveness. As more and more developing states experiment with the democratic alternative, in the hope of finding solutions to their current political and economic difficulties, the experiences of existing democracies in the developing world may offer some useful lessons.


In general terms, the 12 anglophone ACP countries of the Caribbean region display a considerable degree of homogeneity. Ten of them are island states (the exceptions being Guyana and Belize). Their populations range from small to very small (Jamaica is the largest with 2.4 million inhabitants). There are notable economic similarities, with heavy reliance on a limited range of cash crops and a particular emphasis on tourism. In most of the countries, the general level of education is good, and a high proportion of the population is literate. On the negative side, they are all vulnerable to the tropical cyclones which strike with such devastating force in the region.

From a constitutional standpoint, the common heritage of the English-speaking Caribbean is largely reflected in the systems of Government which have emerged. In the decolonisation period, following the Second World War, it was generally believed that statehood was not a viable option for territories below a certain population and size. The British solution to this problem in the Caribbean was to set up a West Indies Federation which, it was intended, would proceed to independence in due course, as a single sovereign entity. The scheme foundered as a result of inter-island rivalries and because the British simultaneously pursued a policy of internal self-government on an island by island basis. The latter approach effectively undermined the efforts to forge a West Indian identity (although this exists on the cricket field) under the umbrella of the Federation.

At the same time, international perceptions about the minimum requirements for statehood in terms of both population and territory were rapidly changing. Economic advances in a number of the larger Caribbean territories contributed to the view that these, at least, could ‘go it alone’ and this led to the independence, between 1962 and 1966 of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Guyana. Despite a further attempt by Britain to draw together most of its remaining Caribbean islands - principally in the Lesser Antilles - under the ill-fated ‘Associated States’, the majority of these moved to independence during the 1970s.

Westminster model

In stark contrast to the position in Africa, the basic constitutional frameworks bequeathed by the colonial power have survived largely unscathed in the English-speaking Caribbean. Accordingly, government structures continue to resemble in many ways the Westminster system upon which they were modelled. Guyana is the only real exception to this, having inaugurated a new constitution in 1980 which replaced the system established at the time of independence and which incorporated socialist principles into the basic law.

One clear distinction between the countries under discussion and the erstwhile metropolitan power is the fact that the former have written constitutions. It is perhaps ironic that Britain, whose antipathy towards enshrining its own basic norms and conventions in a single constitutional document is well known, should have played such a prominent part in the writing of other peoples’ constitutions, but it is difficult to imagine how the independence process could have proceeded otherwise.

In all of the states concerned except Guyana, the legal form of the Constitution is still the original ‘Order in Council’ signed by the monarch at the time independence was granted. Each contains a series of human rights provisions as well as the basic rules governing the exercise of executive, legislative and judicial authority.

Human rights guaranteed

Broadly speaking, the provisions relating to fundamental rights guarantee the following to the citizen (taken from the Antigua and Barbuda Constitution Order, 1981):

- life, liberty, security of the person, the enjoyment of property and the protection of the law;

- freedom of conscience, of expression (including freedom of the press), and of peaceful assembly and association;

- protection of family life, of personal privacy, of the privacy of the home and other property, and from deprivation of property without fair compensation.

It is perhaps significant that these entrenched rights usually precede the clauses relating to the structure of government.

A set of similar rights is also enumerated in the Guyana Constitution, although this document cites as ‘the principal objective of the political system’, the extension of ‘socialist democracy by providing increasing opportunities for the participation of citizens in the management and decision-making processes of the state’. Article 18 goes on to lay down, in almost biblical fashion, the precept that ‘lend is for social use and must go to the tiller’, while the existence of privately owned economic enterprises is also recognised (Article 17).

On the institutional side, in the other 11 states, the British parliamentary system of government has been reproduced with variations which are more of form than substance. This is true even of the two countries which decided against constitutional monarchy with the Queen as head of state (Trinidad and Tobago, and Dominica). In both of these, the President performs a role which is analogous to that of the Crown, and real political power is in the hands of the directly elected politicians. In the others, the Queen remains head of state, and is represented by a Governor-General who assents to bills which have been passed by the Parliament. In the normal course of affairs, the Governor-General has a formal and ceremonial role but, as events in Grenada in the early 1980s revealed, he assumes a position of considerable importance when the system itself is under threat.

The bicameralism of the British system, with an unelected upper house, is also reflected to a large extent in the Caribbean democracies. In most cases, the Parliament consists of two chambers - the elected House of Assembly (or House of Representatives) and the appointed Senate, although in a few of the smaller jurisdictions, representatives and senators sit together in a single chamber. The standard pattern is for representatives to be elected by single member constituencies using the simple majority voting system while Senators are appointed by the Head of State ‘on the advice of...’ the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition. Students of the British constitution will recognise the formulation as a euphemism which according to convention, effectively binds the monarch.

Two-party emphasis

From the democratic standpoint, it is interesting to note the extent to which two-party as opposed to multi-party politics are protected by the various constitutions. There is-no rule against third parties standing, but the use of ‘first past the post’ in single member constituencies - an arrangement which is constitutionally entrenched in several of the jurisdictions - clearly tends to favour two-party politics. More significant in this regard is the method of appointment of senators. In most cases, the Prime Minister chooses the majority of senate members while the opposition is guaranteed a minority bloc by virtue of their leader’s right of nomination. Thus for example, in Trinidad and Tobago, 18 of the 31 Senators are chosen by the government and six by the opposition.

The extent to which Guyana departed from the ‘British’ model is particularly reflected in its voting arrangements. It is the only English-speaking Caribbean nation whose constitution requires proportional voting, with 53 of the 65 National Assembly members elected under a list system.

Clearly, the health or effectiveness of democratic structures cannot be judged solely by reference to the systems which exist on paper. There are numerous examples of countries with ostensibly democratic constitutions where the essential characteristics of democracy such as free speech or fair election processes are manifestly absent. The importance of having the right system should not be underestimated but arguably, the existence of a genuinely democratic atmosphere is even more vital.

Importance of education

In this respect, most of the Caribbean islands have been fortunate. There is a well-established tradition of democratic debate and of tolerance of opposing views. The relationship between these circumstances and the generally high level of education - which includes wide understanding about the principles and mechanics of democracy - is one which should not be overlooked. It should also be underlined that the practice of representative government in the area has a longer pedigree than the relatively recent independence dates would seem to suggest. Many of the islands enjoyed extensive internal self-government prior to the final cutting of constitutional ties with the UK, and in fact the Parliament of Barbados, which was established in 1639, is one of the oldest in the Commonwealth.

The process of democratic evolution in the Caribbean, which contrasts sharply with the more rapid transition experienced by other states in the decolonization process may also help to explain the relative stability of political systems in the region. Although a number of countries have, at different times, experienced turmoil which appeared to threaten established political structures - for example in Jamaica in 1980 - the system has normally been able to absorb this and to act as a vehicle for peaceful political change. Grenada in 1983 was, of course, a notable exception in experiencing the kind of revolutionary upheaval more commonly associated with the African continent. The fact that speedy intervention from outside resulted in the restoration of the status quo ante means that we can only speculate about whether this would have occurred in other circumstances, but it certainly is not inconceivable.

The tradition of democracy may be an important foundation, but there is some debate as to whether the Westminster model is the most suitable basis for the genuine and democratic expression of the will of the various English-speaking Caribbean peoples. While acknowledging that the existing systems have provided West Indian societies ‘with regular, usually honest and basically reliable mechanisms for elite recruitment and circulation’, the author Anthony Maingot clearly has some doubts.

Doubts over voting method

He accepts that the intrinsic legitimacy of the current government structures in the West Indies ‘has allowed them to survive some dramatic challenges’, which is clearly a testament in their favour, but he also suggests that the electoral method may have a corrosive effect in the longer term. In particular, he is critical of the ‘winner takes all’ voting system which tends to translate modest movements of votes into much larger swings of seats, to the detriment of minority groupings. He also believes that the system encourages polarization of opinions and induces partisanship which might tend to undermine fundamental national unity. There is some evidence to suggest that simple plurality voting is less suitable for countries which do not have homogenous electorates, and where fair representation of different ethnic, religious or other groups is desirable. In the Caribbean context, Maingot’s critique may, therefore, have greater relevance to a country such as Trinidad and Tobago while being less pertinent, for example, to the Bahamas or St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

However, the essential fact remains that governments in the English-speaking Caribbean can be, and regularly arc replaced by a peaceful electoral process in which everyone is free to participate. To an adherent of democracy in a country where no such freedom exists, the exact form of the system would certainly be a secondary consideration.

The issue of minority representation. indirectly referred to above, also arises in the somewhat different context of the rivalries which exist between various Caribbean islands brought together in a single sovereign entity. The territorial instincts and loyalties of island inhabitants are a well-established sociological phenomenon. These instincts tend to be expressed in nationalistic or ‘quasi nationalistic’ sentiments, the concomitant of which is likely to be a suspicion of larger neighbours. Europe has a number of well-known examples of this, and in the Caribbean it has affected the constitutional situation of a number of countries.

The problem arose because, notwithstanding the much reduced population criteria which came to be accepted in assessing the viability of statehood, there are numerous Caribbean islands which are almost certainly still too small to operate meaningfully on the international stage. Geographical logic would suggest that where possible, these should have been joined with larger neighbouring islands, and this was done in a number of cases, by a UK government which appeared anxious finally to cast off its colonial mantle. Thus Tobago was ‘partnered’ with Trinidad, Barbuda with Antigua and the islands of Anguilla and Nevis with St Kitts. The trouble is that geographical logic and political reality do not always coincide. Early disturbances in Anguilla, where local people were vehemently opposed to the proposed link with St Kitts, resulted in its reversion to the status of a UK dependency. The remaining partnerships have survived although not always without difficulties.

From a constitutional standpoint, it is interesting to note that each of the smaller islands enjoys some form of internal selfgovernment. The aim here has been to satisfy concerns about the possible domination of larger neighbours by allowing some diversity in the governmental system, without undermining the wider unity of the state. Thus, for example, the constitution of ‘The Federation of St Christopher and Nevis’ specifically guarantees the rights of the smaller island.

This kind of solution has not been possible throughout the Caribbean, however, and as a result’ the region now contains most of the world’s remaining dependent territories - small islands where the leeway which comes from being a ‘remnant of empire’, thousands of miles distant from a largely disinterested metropolitan power, is preferred to any of the alternatives.

Personality politics

A further aspect of politics in the Caribbean area which deserves a brief mention is the importance of individual political personalities. Although, as in the UK, party systems are well-entrenched, the political dynamics of small jurisdictions are such that much greater weight tends to be attached to the leading personalities. Clearly, in the smallest states such as Dominica and St Kitts/ Nevis, with populations of less than 100 000, the relationship between a politician and his or her voters is likely to be particularly strong, but even in the larger Caribbean countries, an elected representative would find it difficult (and would be ill-advised) to distance himself too much from the voters. The constituency system further reinforces the link between the local member and the particular group of voters upon whom he depends for his political career.

From a democratic standpoint, this is obviously a good thing. The continuing legitimacy of representative democratic systems requires that they should remain accountable and accessible. There is a tendency on occasion, for politicians operating in larger jurisdictions to lose sight of these imperatives. On the other hand, there is the risk that too much emphasis on personalities and on maintaining the support of one’s own power base could affect the coherence of national political and economic objectives. Additionally, the apparatus which is designed to provide checks and balances against excessive or corrupt behaviour may function less effectively in a small state where a charismatic political leader plays a dominant role.

In the final analysis, the success or failure of any country’s political system can be gauged by its results in terms of economic performance and social wellbeing. The results from the Englishspeaking Caribbean are not uniform and it must be recognised that a number of them continue to face problems of development and poverty. However, the conclusion must be that the record of recent decades is largely positive.

In most of the countries which are the subject of this article, democracy has worked, and in a world with an evergrowing number of new democracies whose systems are currently ‘on trial’, this fact alone should be a source of encouragement.


The Pacific - distinctive cultures and traditions

At first sight, one might expect the governmental systems of the eight Pacific states in the ACP group to have quite a lot in common with those of the English-speaking Caribbean. The countries, after all, have certain important similarities - small populations, economies founded largely on primary commodities and a history of strong links with the British Crown.

However, despite the similarities, an examination of the political structures of the Pacific countries reveals important differences which are rooted in the distinctive cultures and traditions of the region. Each of the island nations has its own characteristics and these are reflected in the way their societies are currently organised. It is evident, for example, that Papua New Guinea, with its four million inhabitants and its multitude of different tribes and languages, mainly of Melanesian origin, will be organised along different lines from Polynesian Tuvalu, which has fewer than 10 000 people living on eight tiny islands just to the west of the international date line. The unique pre-independence status of Vanuatu as a Franco-British ‘condominium’, had a particular effect on the way government evolved in that archipelago while the fact that Tonga was never a colony (it was a British protectorate) clearly influenced the system more in favour of local norms and institutions. Fiji? with its two main ethnic groups, is something of a special case. Problems over the relationship between, and role of the Fijian and Indian communities respectively, have influenced the country’s constitutional development in a very specific way in recent years.

Despite the divergences within the region, the essential factor which differentiates it from the anglophone Caribbean is the strength of the pre-existing indigenous societies. The local populations (Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian) had their own institutions based on tribal or family groupings long before the European powers became involved in the

Pacific and the current political systems, therefore, represent a synthesis of these traditions with imported political concepts which are mainly of British origin.

The most obvious manifestation of western-style democracy is the fact that all of the states concerned now have universal adult franchise. However. the relationship between this and the actual wielding of political power varies from country to country depending on the role played by traditional institutions, hierarchies and ethnic groups in the process. In Tonga. for example, only nine of the 31 members of Parliament are elected and the role of traditional chiefs and of course, the King as head of state, is still very significant. In PNG and the Solomon Islands, the fact that the village (wontok) is the basic unit of society, is seen as an important buttress of the democratic system. In Tuvalu, all twelve members of the Parliament are elected by their local (island) communities and the Prime Minister is chosen from among them. In Fiji, voters are registered on four separate rolls (Fijians, Indians, Rotumans and others) and 37 of the 70 members of the House of Representatives are elected by those registered on the first of these.

In some of the Pacific states, parliamentary bodies are, themselves, somewhat alien transplants, representing as they do, the unity and expression of the modern nation state in a region where the family, the village or the island is likely to prove a far more important focus. What is interesting is that parliamentary politics, complete with local adaptations, have endured in most of the states concerned. Transfers of power are generally peaceful and opposition groupings can normally function freely. Unlike Africa, where the marriage between local political concepts and the Westminster model, proved an unhappy one, the fusion of two different political cultures in the Pacific has met with much less difficulty.