GT22D - POLITICS IN THE CARIBBEAN
POLITICAL PARTIES AND PARTY COMPETITION
January 18-27, 2000
Political parties have become standard mass organisations in modern political systems. A political party is defined by Emmanuel as, “ an association of people under a specific name whose primary purposes are the achievement and exercise of governmental power.” Competitive party systems are regarded as essential pre-requisites of democracies. Political parties are therefore essential institutions in modern democratic politics.
The existing political parties of the Anglo-Caribbean were formed mainly in the period between 1938 and 1960. Their formation generally followed the achievement of universal adult suffrage. It was only in Jamaica that the established parties - the People’s National Party (f. 1938) and the Jamaica Labour Party (f.1944) - preceded adult suffrage of 1944. The right to vote and the formation of parties are closely associated. Once the right to vote was won parties were formed for people to vote for.
Political parties have been an important feature of the Caribbean political landscape. Emmanuel shows that in ten Anglo-Caribbean countries, 133 political parties have existed between 1938 and 1991. Most of these have been loosely formed transient micro parties that did not last. In spite of the high level of party formation in the Caribbean it is generally the case that one or two parties have dominated each country and in most cases only two parties have governed in any territory. Only about 20 parties in the Anglo-Caribbean have established themselves as durable national political organisations.
The successful parties have tended to be associated with trade unions which have given them roots among the working people. They have also been the ones in the forefront of nationalism and associated with the leaders most involved in nation-building. These parties have eclipsed independent candidates and small groups or cliques that competed in elections in the early period.
Caribbean politics is typified by two-party competition. Jamaica is the classic case of the British-style two party model. It is the only country in which two large parties competed under the first general elections; in which there was a perfect record of two-party alternation in government between 1944 and 1980; and where third parties and independent candidates never posed a challenge to the established parties once they consolidated their organisations. The Jamaican system has been the best example of a two-party system.
What do Parties do? The Positive View.
Political parties were important founding institutions of Caribbean politics. Today, many are seen as being responsible for current failures of democracy and development. In the formative period of Caribbean politics, especially, parties served important functions in integrating the new and immature electorate into the emerging political order. They did this by performing roles that are typical of political parties.
Critics of political parties find fault with how political parties go about serving their functions.
What do Parties do? The Negative View.
Parties are criticized as being self-serving and for abusing the system of competition for their own ends, which is, to win and keep power in order to serve themselves.
This argument is given added force within the Caribbean context. It is claimed that:
- Black Caribbean political leadership has failed to address the special circumstances of the majority who are Black and poor because of slavery and colonialism and who have put their trust in these parties to ‘deliver’ them only for that trust to be violated;
- In their unbridled political competition and pursuit of power political parties have exploited the people and turned them against each other in the form of political tribalism. They have used the people’s poverty to make false promises of benefits, and turned them into violent political gangs or pit the races against each other in an effort to divide and rule in the struggle for scarce benefits;
- The abuse of power in the form of political corruption harms these societies which can ill-afford the waste of resources because they are small, developing societies. The scarcity of resources heightens tribalism;
- Political parties have developed a new political class of party elites and their cliques that use the power of government to distribute society’s resources to their own kind rather than for the benefit of all. This expresses itself in political patronage or clientilism and this in turn causes political victimization. This is particularly immoral because scarce resources are devoted to the political class or political party supporters at the exclusion of others.
- Political parties govern mainly with the objective of winning the next elections and so resources and policies are devoted to short-term electoral populism rather than to long-term development. Because so much rests on winning elections they corrupt the electoral process to their advantage.
On the basis of these claims, it has become a part of popular perception that political parties that were formed as instruments of democracy and development have become threats to both because the pursuit of power has become the overriding objective.
A study by Stephen Rodriguez in 1994 indicates this perception. A sample of Jamaicans were asked if they thought that governments put the interest of the people above that of the party in power and 87% said the interest of the party was put ahead of that of the people. Rodriguez also found that 64% thought that most or all politicians in Jamaica were corrupt and that approximately 72% felt that people became politicians to get rich quickly, out of (other reasons of) self-interest or to gain power and status. He also asked which institutions in Jamaica did the most to uplift people. The church was first with 24%, then trade unions with 19.3% and the political party was third with 13.6%. Probably what is most striking is that many people (one-third) did not feel that any institution was uplifting Jamaicans, including the political party.
We must note two things. First, we do not have comparable data for the other Caribbean countries to say how general this perception is across the region. Second, data from a larger number of countries in the developed democracies themselves, that is, Europe and North America, do show that over the past 30 years there has been a significant decline in popular trust in government and politicians. In relation to political parties, specifically, people are voting, joining and contributing to political parties in much smaller numbers in those countries. It is not unrealistic therefore to believe that the findings about Jamaica show a similar trend across the Caribbean. Political parties do not enjoy the same confidence that they did in their formative years.
Explanations: The Impact of Parties on Democracy and Development.
What might be the explanations for this? Explanations tend to centre on certain aspects of the problem: the quality of the party that controls government and its ability to manage modern government and society; the nature of party competition and the effects of this on society and economy; and the condition of society.
The quality of the party.
The matter of leadership has not been lost on Caribbean scholars and politicians. The issues here are about personal integrity and skills or ability to manage the more complex tasks modern government. Trevor Munroe has highlighted the quality of leadership as a crucial factor to the party, government and the sustenance of democracy. The quality of leadership, he says, was critical in steering the Caribbean through decolonization and developing and sustaining the political and governmental institutions of liberal democracy, which would include the political party. Is that the case among the present generation? Munroe believes that a new generation of political leaders is emerging, one that is more managerialist and post-charismatic. He mentions Keith Mitchell of Grenada, Edison James of Dominica, Owen Arthur of Barbados, Kenny Anthony of St. Lucia, and we can add Hubert Ingraham of the Bahamas and Jagdeo of Guyana.
Carl Stone had raised the question, “how do we generate leaders with the attributes needed to manage the state effectively,” Munroe felt through there should be in-service training of parliamentarians. He said, “Given the complexity of the modern nation-state, the rapidly changing character of each society and the global reality... it is...incomprehensible and...unacceptable that there is no programme of training and of human resource development tailored to the needs of Parliamentarians.”
The performance of political leaders was the subject of the ‘Stone Committee’ of 1990/91, set up by the government to recommend ways by which the performance of parliamentarians could be improved. That committee also recommended that special courses be designed to train MP’s and ministers to improve their capability in public management . In addition, there were recommendations for a code of ethics for parliamentarians requiring full exposure of finances and assets, and a pledge from Parliamentarians to conduct themselves in a manner that would earn the respect and trust of their constituents; fight against corruption, dishonesty and violence; not to engage in political victimization or acquire personal gain from public office.
Donald Peters has made an interesting discovery in this regard. The reduced popularity of parties results from their drift away from their roots, that is, trade union support, labour issues and the working people. In the Eastern Caribbean, he found that labour parties had declined in electoral strength. Between 1950 and 1960, the union-based parties won 80% of all elections. Between 1960 and 1970, the number of elections won fell to 68%. Between 1970 and 1980, they won only 56% of elections and in the 1980's less than 20% of elections were won by labour parties. The character of these labour parties changed as they recruited middle class members who came to take over their leadership and to determine the issues that the party stood for. A clear case of this drift is the Jamaica Labour Party which since 1974 has been led by someone who did not come from the union movement and in the leadership dispute of 1999, a candidate for Deputy Leadership (Pearnel Charles) who came from the union movement had the support of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union while the competing candidate who had the support of the party leader did not.
Indeed, Caribbean political parties have become middle class parties. Perry Hentzen argues that the middle class parties, unions and ideology have won out over the lower class parties and unions that emerged in the 1930's. It is this middle class that has come to dominate the state systems of the Caribbean. Rodriguez found that in Jamaica almost 27% of people interviewed thought that the upper classes had too much influence on government compared to about 7% who thought trade unions did.
The effects of party competition.
Another set of explanations of party behaviour concentrates on the party system of competition. In the 1970's, a number of British political scientists had become very critical of the Westminster system of party competition. They blamed it for the economic crisis that Britain was experiencing at the time. Their argument has now become popular in the Caribbean. The argument is that party competition for power takes on a reckless form where winning becomes everything because of the nature of the Westminster system. Two aspects of the Westminster system drive parties to dangerous competition: the plurality or first-past-the-post electoral system which creates a bias towards a two-party system and disadvantages third and additional parties, and the majoritarian principle by which after elections, ‘the winner takes all.’
In a plurality system a party wins seats equal to the number of constituencies it wins. The result is that a party must be large enough to have support distributed nationally so that it can win 51% of the votes in 51% of the constituencies to form the government. Voters therefore calculate which party can do this and cast their votes for the largest parties choosing not to “waste” their votes on smaller parties that cannot win. This creates an anomaly where in the case of say the British Liberal Party and the Jamaican National Democratic Movement, their support might be as high as 20% among the population but because these votes are not distributed nationally to win many constituencies, on election day voters go for the larger parties reducing the “third” party to a few or no seats. For third parties, it is difficult to penetrate the base support of the large parties that rest on the traditional loyalty of voters to the established parties. Plurality electoral systems therefore tend to produce two-party systems. This is also the case in the Congressional elections of the United States.
The Prime Minister of Barbados, Owen Arthur, says: “There is something fundamentally flawed about a system of governance, based upon the first past the post principle, in which the victor gets all the spoils.” Bruce Golding of the NDM says, “There is no joy in being in Opposition...When you are in opposition, you control nothing...one is ineffective and impotent despite the fact that one may be a duly elected representative of the people.”
Because the winner gets all the electoral stakes are high. There is everything to win or everything to lose. This causes intense and even violent competition. Parties make unrealistic promises. But they cannot fulfill these promises once elected leading to post-election frustration. Over a period of time voters become disillusioned and begin to vote less and distrust parties more.
Michael Manley referred to this as the problem of populist politics. Politicians promise the moon and democracy is reduced to a set of competing promises that are dangled before the electorate every five years. But the package of promises will not be sufficiently realized. It cannot be realized because resources are scarce.
It is out of this atmosphere of extreme competitiveness that phenomena such as patronage politics, electoral manipulation, garrison constituencies and political violence arise. Michael Manley was critical of the Westminster system which he believed promoted adversarial rather than consensual relations. He said that political parties lived with the constant reality of competition. This competition reduced them to electoral machines and placed them under constant pressure to distribute favours.
The phenomenon of garrison politics arises. Mark Figueora says that in a system where the winner takes all the spoils of party victory are expected to go to the party’s supporters. This takes the form of jobs, rent-free government housing, free utilities because constituents refuse to pay bills. These benefits are protected by a terrorist-type of organisation that inflicts violence against supporters of the opposing party and where there develops a state within a state. The garrisons develop a system of ‘donman’ authority where try their own disputes, sentence and punish offenders according to their own laws.
A culture of violence develops in these constituencies. The constituencies develop their own ‘economies’ revolving around drug-trafficking and gun-running. They even develop an independence from the politicians and become difficult for the state, especially the police to control. Brana-Shute explains:
“Political violence is the foremost obstacle facing the democratic process in Jamaica. This problem has intensified as the garrisons augment their traditional activities with drug-trafficking, gun running, document forgery, smuggling of aliens and links to criminal gangs abroad, primarily in the United States...Sadly, this culture of violence has become deeply rooted in the fabric of Jamaican life and will not easily yield to attacks by reform-minded politicians.”
In the end, Selwyn Ryan says that the Westminster competitive party system has not served Jamaica as well as was initially hoped. Parties complain about the winner take all system when they are in opposition but benefit from it in government and therefore do little to change it. Ryan says of the parties: “ When in opposition, they comprehensively stigmatize and demonise those in power. They tell their supporters...that their rivals are venal, corrupt and in the pay or control of the highest bidder, whether foreign or local. They also promise to bring affluence, efficiency, order and transparency tot he business of governance when they achieve office and to restore pride and dignity to a demoralized, pauperized and alienated people...When in opposition parties seek to outbid their rivals. Some do it consciously and cynically, while others do it without making clear how difficult it is to effect the policy changes which they espouse.”
The condition of society.
Certain explanations suggest that the impact of parties on society must be understood according to the nature of society itself. The party system is interactive with the society. The abuse of power and the scarcity of resources, for example, are best explained by small size and dependency and not abstractly by the misuse of power and resources by parties.
“In a small island of 50,000 to 100,000 people, dominated by a single political party, it is very difficult to prevent political abuse. Everybody depends on the government for something, however small. So most are reluctant to offend it. The civil servants live in fear, the police avoid unpleasantness; the trade unions are tied to the party; the newspaper depends on government advertisements; and so on. This is true even if the political leaders are absolutely honest. In cases where they are also corrupt, and playing with the public funds, the situation becomes intolerable.”
Courtney Blackman believes that the authoritarianism inherent in the Caribbean’s experience of slavery and colonialism has been made worse by small size which has centralized power and given politics a certain primacy in the allocation of benefits in countries where economic opportunities are few. Gordon Lewis believes that in the Eastern Caribbean, a tiny middle class controls power over a docile majority of workers and peasants.
Donald Peters presents a graphic picture of political authoritarianism in the small Eastern Caribbean islands:
“What is peculiar about the Eastern Caribbean political system is the absolute authority that government somehow inherits. Government officials are able to circumvent laws that they have enacted. They are able to use public resources for their personal gain...When a party is elected to power, it virtually eliminates the opposition through patronage, control of the media, and legislative action where necessary. These actions are in part responsible for the domination of one party for decades in some of these islands.”
Ryan says, “The Caribbean is and has always been a dependent and peripheral part of the international system in which most of the value of what was produced, whether it was sugar, citrus, cocoa, bananas, petroleum, bauxite or gold, accrued to the metropolitan based elites. The indigenous elites of the Caribbean and the parties they founded or led were always struggling to get the morsels of what was left. In a sense, then, the “winner take all struggle” is for what was left after the bulk of the wealth that was created had been expatriated.”
In fact, in Rodriguez’s study, there was a strong public perception that foreign interests had much more influence on government than Jamaican politicians did. The groups that the public thought had too much influence on government were, the private sector (32%); the IMF and foreign banks (30%); while only 3.5% thought politicians had too much influence on government.
This would suggest that politicians in dependent societies are less to blame for the state of the economies of their countries and specifically for the scarcity of resources. Rather, it is the dependent condition of their economies that it is at the heart of the problem. The problems of politics and society become merely reflective of the underlying dependency of their economies. A UN study had shown that small countries have fewer resources and were more dependent on external economies. In fact, studies agree that small societies are more dependent on foreign aid because of their limited resources to begin with. However aid does not solve their problems because these states pay out at least twice (and often more) in debt servicing than they receive in foreign aid.
The Westminster system of party competition therefore has to be assessed under the conditions of resource scarcity in small, dependent societies.
Ryan distinguishes between Barbados and other islands in this regard. In Barbados there has emerged a pragmatic elite consensus between the political parties and the leading institutions of civil society. In contrast, he speaks of the pervasive distrust that exists among both the elite and the people in Guyana, Trinidad and some of the Eastern Caribbean states. Social relations concerning family and class structure also influence the characteristics of the political system.
Culturally pluralistic societies and class divided societies have an underlying divisiveness among major groups that are sharpened and made violent when the high stakes involved in political competition are imposed. Political relations are determined by the historically-given forms of social and cultural relations. Perry Mars speaks of the different forms of ‘tribalism’ in Caribbean politics. There is the racial and ethnic forms in Trinidad and Guyana, the materialistic - clientilistic forms in Jamaica (and Antigua) and the cultural - religious forms in Dominica, St. Vincent and Grenada. These then produce tribalistic forms of electoral mobilisation, violent rivalries in the contest for power, purges and splits within parties along tribal lines and authoritarian control of the state based on tribal criteria as to who to exclude and who to include. Many Caribbean scholars believe that the majoritarian, winner take all form of politics is inappropriate under these social conditions. They propose reforming the system towards greater consensus, compromise and power-sharing.
Scholars of politics in the Caribbean agree that there is a real Caribbean democracy. Their language and those of the politicians they refer to is sometimes extreme and suggestive of an absence of democracy. What they want to emphasise is that democracy is imperfect or probably in a state of decline and decay.
Political parties, party systems and party competition are at the heart of liberal democracy and so they are strongly implicated as parts of the reasons for this decline. It is important to assess the state of Caribbean democracy and development against the changing role of parties before and after Independence in this regard. Specific changes are in: - leadership - intensity of party competition, - control of the post-independence state and the means of patronage, - public awareness and attitude towards parties, - the class character and programme of parties, - the tasks of managing modern governments, economies and societies in a global world.
How have these contributed towards the current state of democracy and the chances for development?