GT22D - POLITICS IN THE CARIBBEAN
ELECTIONS AND ELECTORAL SYSTEMS
The Anglo-Caribbean held its first elections under universal adult suffrage in the period 1944-1953. It started in Jamaica in 1944 and was followed by Trinidad in 1946. Barbados, Antigua and the Windward Islands followed in 1951 and St. Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla and Montserrat did so in 1952. Guyana held its first elections in 1953. Since 1944 to the present, there have been about 130 general elections held in the Anglo-Caribbean.
The Anglo-Caribbean has generally had a record of free and fair elections. However, elections in Guyana have been controversial throughout its electoral history. Elections in Grenada were suspended between 1979 and 1984 during the period of the revolution. Elections in Jamaica were boycotted by the then opposition People’s National Party in 1983 leading to a one-party parliament up to 1989.
Elections in the Latin Caribbean have not had a similarly good record. Neither Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Suriname nor Haiti have met the liberal conditions for free and fair elections for much of this century. In Cuba, only the communist party is a legal party and so competitive elections have not been held since the revolution of 1959. In the Dominican Republic the first free and fair elections were held only in 1978 and in Haiti, this happened only as recently as 1990. In Suriname, the elected governments since 1987 have been fronts for the military that operates in an ‘advisory’ capacity.
Electoral systems in the region are mainly of the first-past-the post type. Electoral systems are essentially the electoral formula used for electing the executive and legislature. In the Anglo-Caribbean countries (except Guyana), the first-past-the-post system elects the members of parliament, a majority of whom nominate the prime minister. In the Latin Caribbean and Guyana the electoral formula is more complicated, often including proportional representation and either an indirectly or directly elected president. Caribbean electoral systems reflect the influence of the former colonial powers and national circumstances such as the racial composition of the population.
Elections and electoral systems aim at converting the popular will expressed as votes into choices between candidates of/or political parties for political offices in the executive and legislature. The electoral system therefore reflects itself in the party system and the structure of governmental representation. This association between elections, parties and government takes different forms. Ideally, electoral systems try to accomplish four things:
- effective government;
- fair representation;
- free and fair voting.
A review of the Caribbean shows how these aims are attempted and the strengths and weaknesses encountered.
Each case below will highlight the ways that elections and electoral systems in different Caribbean countries seek to achieve the objectives above.
Elections and Electoral System in Cuba.
Cuba applies the concept of competitive elections in a novel way. The electoral system is not based on competition between parties but on competition between candidates of the same party. Elections are competitive but not in the liberal democratic form.
Cuba’s most recent elections were held in 1998 with the next one due in 2003. The system is unique in the Caribbean. One unique feature is the fact that the minimum voting age is 16 while it is 18 in the other countries. Also, only the Communist party of Cuba is legal but other parties exist, such as, the Christian Democratic Party of Cuba, the Democratic Solidarity Party and the Social Democratic Coordination of Cuba. Individuals not belonging to the communist party can stand for election.
The main representative body or legislature is the National Assembly of People’s Power. This comprises 601 members directly elected from 169 multi-seat constituencies. This means that more than one representative is elected from any one constituency. In fact, an average of 3.5 persons represent each constituency. It is among these candidates that there is competition.
The real competition lies not between parties but between candidates mainly of the communist party for the right to be elected to the National Assembly. The choice facing the voter is between candidates rather than between parties. A maximum of eight persons can compete in each constituency. It is not the party that is elected since its dominance is assured but the candidates who must prove themselves as potentially good representatives of the people.
Representatives serve five-year terms in Cuba’s National Assembly. That Assembly elects the president who appoints the Council of Ministers or cabinet. The president is therefore indirectly elected. The Cuban system is a presidential system. The president is head of state and head of government. His office has the highest authority. In the last Assembly election of the president, Fidel Castro received 100% of the votes. Voting turn-out in the elections to the National Assembly was 94%.
Elections and Electoral System in the Dominican Republic.
In the Dominican Republic there is a mixed electoral system where the proportional representational formula is combined with the first past the post formula. The most recent elections in the Dominican Republic were held in 1996. This is also a presidential system however the president is directly elected in national elections.
There are three types of elections. There are elections to the lower house of the congress or the Chamber of Deputies. One hundred and forty nine members are elected for four years by proportional representation. This means that parties obtain a number of seats in proportion to the total votes they receive in a national vote.
Another 30 members are elected to the senate for four years from each of the 30 provinces. These elections are held by the first past the post formula. Candidates from the parties contest seats for the senate and the one who wins the most votes in a province, wins that seat.
Then there are national elections for the president on the basis of the majority formula. Each party puts forward a presidential candidate in May of an election year. If a candidate wins an outright majority of 50% plus one vote, he is the winner. If no candidate wins a majority then a second round of voting occurs in June. At this point, only the two candidates with the most votes in May remain in the contest and all others are eliminated. The candidate who receives a majority in the second round of voting wins.
The Dominican Republic therefore uses proportional representation for election to the Lower House, first past the post for the Upper House and a majority system for presidential elections. It has a mixed electoral system.
An interesting turn of events occurred in the 1996 presidential elections which undermine effective government. In the first place elections had been set two years ahead of schedule because the previous elections were won controversially. Then, the candidate from the third party went on to win presidential elections.
The most popular candidate ( Jose Francisco Pena Gomez of the Dominican Revolutionary Party - PRD) won 46% of the presidential vote in May 1996. The future president (Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Liberation Party - PLD) won 35%. The candidate from the then ruling party (Jacinto Peynado of the Social Christian Reformist Party - PRSC) won only 15% because that party and government had been badly tainted by political corruption and previous fraudulent elections. Since no candidate had won an outright majority another round of elections had to be called in June with the PRSC candidate eliminated.
In that round, the PRSC and the PLD which had been bitter enemies for over 40 years decided to form a pact and ask their supporters to vote for the candidate from the PLD. The reason is that the popular leader of the PRD was black and his opponents claimed he was part Haitian. There is much prejudice against Haitians in the Dominican Republic. In the June elections, the tactic worked. The PLD candidate, Leonel Fernandez won.
The PLD, however, is the smallest party in the legislature having only 49 of the 149 seats in the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House) and four of the 30 senators in the senate (Upper House). The PLD has to rely on the PRD to pass legislation. This shows how well-intentioned electoral systems can be manipulated and how a system like that of the Dominican Republic can produce a weak and divided government since the executive and legislature are controlled by opposing parties. This is a negative feature of separation of powers where governments can suffer deadlocks over legislation and this is particularly harmful in developing countries. In contrast, the Cuban electoral system produces a strong and united government.
Elections and Electoral System in Haiti.
Haiti’s electoral system bears some resemblance to that of the United States. It’s version of separation of powers has also produced divided government, that is, government divided between the executive and legislature. This raises questions about whether such a poor country can afford divided government.
Its most recent presidential elections were in 1995 and legislative elections were in 1997. The president is directly elected by popular vote. The current president, Rene Preval, was elected by 88% of the vote. The National Assembly consists of the Chamber of Deputies (the Lower House) with 83 members elected for four years in first past the post elections and the Senate (the Upper House) has 27 members elected for six years in first past the post elections. One-third of the Senate is renewed every two years. This is similar to what prevails in the US.
Although Haiti is a presidential system, it also has a prime minister. The prime minister is appointed by the president. He need not be a member of the legislature but his appointment has to be supported by a majority of the legislature.
Haiti’s electoral system is undergoing a crisis caused by political maneuvering. The ruling party is that formed by Bertrand Aristide - the Lavalas Political organisation (OPL), of which Preval is a member. The OPL dominates the legislature with 68 of the 83 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 24 of the 27 seats in the Senate. However, the OPL has split into an Aristide faction that is resisting an IMF programme and the Preval faction that must accept an IMF programme in order to get international aid to fund the budget and fulfill the government’s agenda.
In the last senate elections in 1997, seven seats remain undeclared because the results were annulled due to suspected fraud. Seven pro-Aristide senators felt they were about to lose because of manipulation by the electoral commission supposedly favourable to Preval. Haiti’s government remains without needed international funds because of the electoral and political crisis. Haiti has also gone for long periods of time without a prime minister since the legislature often refuses to support the president’s nominee for the position. The end result is divided government because the legislature and the executive cannot agree on a programme.
Elections and Electoral System in Guyana.
Guyana’s electoral system is based on proportional representation. The question raised in this case is how well suited this system is for a racially divided society or how fairly does it really represent the nation.
Guyana’s most recent elections were in 1997. Guyana has a presidential system but like Cuba, the president is indirectly elected; and like Haiti there is a prime minister who the president nominates. Guyana is a good example of an electoral system based on proportional representation. In the last elections the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) won 55% of the popular vote and was awarded 55% or 29 out of 53 seats. The People’s National Congress received 41% of the votes and 41% or 22 out of 53 seats. Two other parties each received approximately 1% of the votes and were awarded 1 seat each.
Guyana’s last elections were controversial and that controversy comes out of the history of the Guyana electoral system itself. Guyanese have always voted predominantly along racial lines. In 1953 and 1957 the Indian-dominated PPP won elections under a first past the post system. However, because the PPP was a Marxist party, the British colonial government devised a way to put it at a disadvantage.
In 1964 the electoral system was changed to proportional representation. This meant that all the non-Marxist parties could pool their seats and form a coalition government to keep the PPP out. This happened in 1964 and from 1968 the PNC resorted to electoral fraud to win successive elections. Under free and fair elections monitored by international observers in 1992 the PPP was returned.
Up to 1997, Guyanese still voted along racial lines. East Indians comprise 51% of the population and were mainly responsible for the PPP’s 55% of the national vote. This shows the danger of proportional representation. In racially divided societies, the majority race is virtually assured of victory since seats are awarded in proportion to vote which is racially determined. Racial voting undermines national government and the ongoing dispute between the parties over the fairness of the last elections weakens the national interest. The goal of fair representation is undermined.
Elections and Electoral Systems in the Anglo-Caribbean.
In the English-speaking Caribbean there is one electoral formula and one set of elections to the legislature. The first past the post formula is used to elect members of the legislature and then a majority in the legislature selects the prime minister. The main criticism of this formula is that it produces disproportional representation usually awarding the winning party with a share of seats much greater than its share of votes and under-representing the opposition by awarding it with a share of seats much less than its share of votes. In the 1997 elections for example, the People’s National Party in Jamaica won 55% of the votes but obtained 83% of the seats. The Jamaica Labour Party received 40% of the votes but only 16.6% of the seats. This is typical of what obtains throughout the Anglo-Caribbean.
On the one hand this reinforces the tendency towards strong governments and weak parliamentary oppositions. On the other hand, this electoral formula is favoured for producing effective government. Governments are usually assured of safe enough majorities to carry through their legislation. The system tends to produce a single winning party so that it is clear which party controls government and is to be held accountable. This is not so in coalition governments under proportional representation.
In the Jamaican elections of 1944, the JLP received 41% of the votes and 69% of the seats. The combined opposition received 59% with the PNP getting 23.5% and Independents getting 35% of the votes and together they got 31% of the seats. Under a system of proportional representation there would have had to be a coalition of at least two groups. Under the first past the post system it was possible for the JLP to govern alone with a safe margin and to be solely held accountable for government’s policies.
This system has actually favoured the JLP and the more conservative and business-oriented parties in the region with relatively weaker and more fragile popular support amongst the poorer majority in the voting population. The JLP in Jamaica for instance averaged less than 50% or 46% of the popular votes in the first four elections that it won from 1944 to 1967 but received an average of 63.6% of the seats, allowing it to form the government alone on these four occasions. The PNP on the other hand, being the more popular party historically among the people has won a majority of the votes cast on all the seven occasions that it has won elections and would have been able to govern on its own on all these occasions if the system had been based on proportional representation. Its average winning vote has been 56%.
Free and Fair Elections.
Electoral systems have consequences for the nature of competition (single party, two-party or multi-party); effective government (coalition as against single-party governments, or united executive/legislative government as against divided government); and fair representation (disproportional vote:seat margins that nonetheless represent the diversity of a population as against proportional vote:seat margins that however provide sectional representation such as of a particular ethnic group). In the last case especially, an electoral system might be said to be “unfair” when a party is under-represented in seats relative to its votes.
However, concerns over free and fair elections in the Caribbean are of a different order. They centre, not on the electoral formula used, but on the political situation and electoral administration existing.
Elkit and Svensson enumerate both the political and administrative conditions for free and fair elections. The conditions for free elections relate to political conditions. The political conditions are those political rights and freedoms that enable citizens to participate in politics. They include the freedom of movement, speech, assembly and association; the right to contest an election, vote in an election and to complain and obtain legal redress where there is electoral abuse.
The conditions for fair elections relate more to the administration of elections. These conditions must not favour one group over any other. These include:
By these standards elections in Cuba might not be free but the Cubans say that at least they are fair. In the rest of the Caribbean the political conditions generally exist for free elections. The controversies usually involve the fairness of elections.
The worse case in the Anglo-Caribbean has been Guyana. Perry Mars explains how the People’s National Congress in Guyana was able to retain power between 1968 and 1985. The PNC managed to rig four elections by:
The Jamaican case shows how administrative difficulties can affect elections. The Carter Centre for observing elections noted:
Yet, even where the conditions of political freedom and administrative impartiality exist, the socio-political environment can affect the way elections are conducted. Elections are affected by socio-political realities.
A number of the above problems almost brought Guyana to the brink of civil war following its 1997 elections. It took ten days to complete and release all the vote counts. This led to suspicion that the process was being tampered with. Some tampering was discovered but a recount cleared the PPP. Nonetheless, the PNC opposition appeared to have encouraged the police and the military, 90% of which vote for the PNC, to rebel and overthrow the government. The PNC announced a campaign of defiance and civil disobedience and threatened to make the country ungovernable. Street demonstrations and violence took place. There was fear of a civil war and even a split of Guyana into two states - one for Indo-Guyanese and one for Afro-Guyanese, a solution that some still desire.
In contrast, the transition in Jamaica was smooth and the election result was accepted by the opposition, election observers and the international community. The carter Centre, however, did highlight the phenomenon of garrison constituencies as unique in its experience of observing elections and as a problem which must be ended.
Confidence in an electoral system translates into confidence in a democracy. It is generally agreed that elections will hardly be completely free and fair. But a country must be satisfied that election results reflect the will of the people. This means that even where there are malpractices in some constituencies or regions the overall result is what the people, voting as a whole, intend it to be. This was the conclusion of election observers in Jamaica’s last elections even while the electoral process fell short of the standards of fairness.
Elections have a stronger tradition in the Anglo-Caribbean than in the Latin Caribbean but even so there is room to improve electoral laws and administration and to enforce codes of conduct during election campaigns. Very importantly, there is the need to change the culture of violence so that elections can be conducted in a climate of peace, and not only be free and fair but be free from fear.