Lectures 3-4

Robert Buddan




Election systems are comprised of two important aspects:

(1) Electoral formula;

(2) Electoral administration.

Electoral formula refers to the system by which the executive and legislature are elected, that is, the formula for converting votes into seats for the candidates of parties.

There are two main formulas: the first-past-the-post (FTP) system and the proportional representational (PR) system. The FTP is found in the Anglo-Caribbean. According to this formula, the party that wins a majority of constituency seats to parliament forms the government.

Election Systems and Party Systems.

There are two things to note about the FTP system. First, because a party must win a majority of constituencies the party must have broad, national support, that is, enough support in each constituency to win the seat, and enough support across all constituencies in all parts of the country to win more that a half of all of them. The system therefore requires parties to be large and disadvantages smaller parties. It tends to produce two main national parties.

A second, consequence of FTP is that the party that wins the majority of constituencies forms the government exclusively, that is, FTP systems normally produce single-party governments rather than coalition governments. Since one party wins exclusively, it wins all the powers that go with government. Therefore, the system is sometimes referred to as the ‘winner-take-all’ system.

The other electoral formula is proportional representation. This is used in the Dominican Republic and Guyana. In this system parties win seats in proportion to the national votes they receive, not according to the number of constituencies they win. This means that a party that wins 15% of the national vote would get 15% of legislative seats, whereas in the FTP system, that 15% might not be enough to win any one seat.

Therefore, PR systems provide more incentive to smaller parties and therefore a number of small parties tend to get elected to the legislature.

Election formula is therefore related to party system. FTP systems are associated with two-party systems while PR systems are associated with multiparty systems.

Election Systems and Structure of Government.

Election systems are also related to the structure of government. In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, presidential systems exist. The president is directly elected by the nation. In other words, the nation becomes one constituency to elect the president. Then, there are separate elections for the members of the legislature.

In the parliamentary systems of the Anglo-Caribbean, there is no direct election of the executive. There is one set of elections to the legislature and then the majority within the legislature selects one member, usually the party president, to be prime minister.

The electoral formula is therefore associated with the party system and the structure of government. And, the electoral formula, party system and structure of government is different between the Anglo and Latin Caribbean.

Electoral Administration.

Electoral administrations tend to have similar responsibilities. Electoral administrations, ideally, must be independent of political parties, impartial and non-partisan. It is responsible for preparing and updating the voter’s list and systems of voter idetification, creating polling stations, providing ballots and ballot boxes, supplying personnel such as polling clerks, and ensuring that votes are counted fairly.

Whatever the country, whichever the electoral formula, these functions have to be carried out. While the electoral formula determines how the people will elect their representatives, electoral administration provides them with the means to do so.

Background to elections in the Caribbean.

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 over 150 general elections held in the Anglo-Caribbean.[1]

The Anglo-Caribbean has generally had a record of free and fair elections. However, elections in Guyana have been controversial throughout its electoral history.[2] Elections in Grenada were suspended between 1979 and 1984 during the period of the revolution.[3] Elections in Jamaica were boycotted by the then opposition People’s National Party in 1983 leading to a one-party parliament up to 1989.[4]

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 party 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[5] and in Haiti, this happened only as recently as 1991[6]. In Suriname, the elected governments since 1987 have been fronts for the military that operates in an ‘advisory’ capacity.[7]

Assessing Election systems.

Election systems are important for providing or ensuring:

- competition for office;

- 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.

Cuba: The issue of competition

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 sense.

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%.[8]

The Dominican Republic: The issue of effective government.

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 2000. 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 undermined 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 Leonel Fernandez of the PLD - 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. Fernandez 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 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.  In effect, the country suffered from divided government,one where executive and legislature are divided along party lines. The Fernandez government proved relatively ineffective against corruption and state inefficiency since the opposition blocked its attempts at reform and revelation fearing exposure of its previous practices.[9] In contrast, the Cuban electoral system produces a strong and united government.[10]

Haiti: Another case of ineffective government.

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 2000 and legislative elections were in 1997. The president is directly elected by popular vote. The current president, Rene Preval, (soon to be succeeded by Jean-Bertrand Aristide) was elected by 88% of the vote in 1995. 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.[11]     

Guyana: The issue of fair (?)representation.

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.[12]

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.[13] 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. In other words, PR provides fair representation in the sense that votes are in proportion to seats. But when this happens in a racially polarized society, the majority race has the proportional advantage and the minority race, voting by itself, cannit form the government, so the system is unfair to them.

The Anglo-Caribbean: Other cases of fair (?) representation.

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 to 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. (When the JLP wins, it too benefits from an overrepresentation of seats). This is typical of what obtains throughout the Anglo-Caribbean.[14] In 1999, the Barbados Labour Party won 65% of the popular vote but 93% (26 out of 28) parliamentary seats.

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. Since the executive has the support of the legislature and both are united under the same party, this produces more effective (united) government.

The discrepancies between votes and seats can result in a party winning a majority of the votes but another winning a majority of seats. This happened in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 2000. The National Democratic Party of James Mitchell won a majority of seats while the opposition got the majority of votes. The opposition put on a series of demonstrations saying that the government was illegitimate and did not represent the will of the people. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby new elections would be called half-way through the government’s term.

Yet, by the rules of the FTP formula the NDP won according to the FTP’s standard of fairness.

The Caribbean: Free and Fair Elections.

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[15] 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 elections, vote 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:

- an independent and impartial electoral commission;

- impartial treatment of candidates by the police, army and courts;

- equal opportunity for all candidates and parties to contest an election without any special privileges granted to any contestant by electoral laws;

- a transparent electoral process;

- proper registration of voters;

- secrecy of the ballot and security of ballot boxes;

- absence of any intimidation of voters;

- proper counting of ballots and speedy announcement of results;

- courts that provide impartial treatment of election complaints.

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[16] 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:

- denying independence to the electoral commission, making it a tool of the party. For instance the party controlled voter registration and was able to leave off the names of non-PNC supporters and put on fictitious names on whose behalf votes for the PNC were cast;

- using the military as an instrument of the party to control ballot boxes and to tamper with the boxes. The military would transport ballot boxes and on the journey to the election centre votes would be tampered with.

- using a system of overseas voting and proxy voting by which persons could vote on behalf of others. In many cases proxy voting was used on behalf of the dead or of absent Guyanese in favour of the PNC. 

The Jamaican case shows how administrative difficulties can affect elections. The Carter Centre for observing elections noted:[17]

- the shortage of trained election personnel;

- failure to distribute all voter identification cards;

- late distribution of some black books of registered voters;

- omission of some enumerated voters from voters’ lists;

- some voters mistakenly placed in the wrong polling division.[18]

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.

(1) Cost. Democracy comes at a cost. It has to be paid for. The cost is harder for less developed countries to bear. In Jamaica there has been controversy over employing electronic voting at a cost of US$17 million. Furthermore, it costs J$1.1 billion to conduct house to house registration of voters. Jamaica is now establishing fixed registration centres and mobile registration to reach persons in remote areas. The American presidential elections cost US$3 billion to administer,yet there were still wide-scale complaints about its efficiency and impartiality.

(2) Commitment. Leaders must be committed to free and fair elections. Forbes Burnham of Guyana was reported to have said that Michael Manley was a fool to have had power and lost it in 1980. Manley himself was praised even by his critics for being democratic enough to have called elections in the atmosphere of 1980 when his party was expected to lose. Jamaica’s leaders have conceded defeat, however bitter the campaign, and facilitated a peaceful transfer of power.

(3) Readiness. The electoral machinery and the conditions for electors to vote must be in place. In the Westminster model a government can call elections anytime and sometimes they do this in spite of the fact that the election machinery is not ready. In 1983, after being behind in the polls, the JLP called elections when the US invasion of Grenada revived fears of communism and placed the JLP in the lead in the polls again. The government, seeking to make use of the opportunity, called elections and broke its promise not to do so until a new and updated voter’s list had been prepared. The PNP boycotted the elections and only 3% of the population voted thus calling the legitimacy of the elections and the government into question.

(4) Commitment to civilian politics. Eric Gairy of Grenada had relied on the ‘mongoose squad’ or violent thugs to intimidate his political opponents in the 1970's. His government was accused of responsibility in the murder of Maurice Bishop’s father and of planning to murder Bishop himself and others. These circumstances forced Bishop to overthrow Gairy in 1979 but then the Bishop government was accused of not being committed to democracy and elections and the life of the regime and some of its members ended, not through peaceful electoral changes, but by violent means.

(5) Reliance on the military. In the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Suriname, long periods of government have been supported by the military directly or indirectly. The use of the military to support governments and to intimidate voters, have undermined the electoral process, a tradition of free and fair elections and trust in the electoral process. In 1978, Joaquin Balaguer, then president of the Dominican Republic used the army to stop the counting when his margin had become thin.

(6) Political tribalism. The corruption of elections has occurred in the service of political tribalism. This has happened along racial lines as in Guyana or constituency/community lines as in Jamaica’s garrison constituencies. Violence has often marred the process. Political supporters are motivated by the need to elect representatives who they believe will distribute benefits to them on the basis of their vote.

(7) Political sabotage/obstructionism. The PNP believes that the JLP and its members on the Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC) obstructed and delayed reforms and refinements of the electoral process leading up to the 1997 elections because the polls consistently showed they would lose. Then they could cry foul when they did. The PPP in Guyana also charged that PNC returning officers sabotaged the counting of votes so that abuses could be discovered to undermine the legitimacy of the last elections in regions where the PNC was expected to lose.      


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.[19]

In contrast, the transition in Jamaica was smooth and the election result was accepted by the opposition, election observers and the international community.[20]  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. 

[1] Patrick Emmanuel, AParties and Electoral Competition in the Anglophone Caribbean, 1944-1991: Challenges to Democratic Theory,@ in C. Edie (ed), Democracy in the Caribbean, 1994, p.251.

[2] See for example, Jai Narine Singh, Guyana: Democracy Betrayed - A Political History, 1948-1993, 1996. The trouble involved the British colonial power that overthrew an elected Marxist government after 133 days in office. In 1964, the United States, it later admitted, destabilised the same government. From then on the Peoples National Congress, more acceptable to both powers, maintained power by fraud.

[3] The revolutionary New Jewel Movement did promise and begun to act to have a new constitution and elections but the government fell into factional violence and the country was invaded by the United States before any of this could happen. See, Francis Alexis, Changing Caribbean Constitutions,1984, p.115.

[4] At any rate the elections were unpopular (only about 3% of the voters turned out)  and did not legitimize the government because it was held on an old voters list and without promised electoral reform. Local government elections were also successively postponed until 1985 when the governing party badly lost and then lost general elections in 1989. See, Darrell Levi, Michael Manley: The Making of a Leader,1989, pp.240-241.

[5] Jonathan Hartlyn, AThe Dominican Republic: Contemporary Problems and Challenges,@ in Jorge Dominguez et al (eds), Democracy in the Caribbean, 1993, pp.150-172, outlines the troubled electoral history of the country before and since. In fact, charges of electoral fraud in the presidential elections of 1996 forced an agreement by which new elections would be called by 1998.

[6] The government was overthrown again in 1991 and new and free elections were held in 1996. Electoral institutions still remain fragile. See, Robert Maguire, ADemocracy and Human Rights in Haiti,@ in Ivelaw Griffith and Betty Sedoc-Dahlberg (eds), Democracy and Human Rights in the Caribbean,1997, pp.173-192.

[7] Betty Sedoc-Dahlberg, ADemocracy and Human Rights in Suriname,@ in Griffith and Sedoc-Dahlberg (eds), op.cit., pp.212-229.

[8] Updated information taken from: Political Database of the Americas:; and, Elections Around the World:

[9] The Congress has been shown to play an obstructionist role or a subservient role depending on whether the executive and legislature are manned by different parties or the same party. Neither case is good for democracy in a developing country. See, Hartlyn, op.cit., pp.163-166.

[10] See, Political database of the Americas and Elections Around the World, op.cit.

[11] See, Political Database of the Americas and Elections Around the World, op.cit.

[12] See, Political Database of the Americas and Elections Around the World, op.cit.

[13] For a history of racial voting, see Edward Greene, Race vs Politics in Guyana,1974.

[14] For a fuller discussion, see Emmanuel, op.cit.

[15] Jorgen Elkit and Palle Svensson, AWhat Makes Elections Free and Fair,@ in Journal of Democracy,8,3,1997, pp.32-46.

[16] Perry Mars, Ideology and Change: The Transformation of the Caribbean Left, 1998, pp.94-95. See also Jai Narine Singh, op. cit., pp.130-149; Selwyn Ryan, The Winner Takes All,1999, pp. 147-180. 

[17] The Carter Centre, The Observation of the 1997 Jamaican Elections: A Report of the Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government,1997.

[18] Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections: The 1997 General Elections in Jamaica, 1998

[19] S. Ryan, op.cit., p.164.

[20] Ricky Singh, ATribalism and Race in Jamaica and Guyana,@ Caribbean Affairs, 8,1, 1998.

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