Elections in the Caribbean and the Need for People’s Empowerment

By A. T. Freeman

Guyanese wait to vote in the March 2 2020 election. Photo – Washington Times

The election stalemate in Guyana, where 4 months after Election Day, the results have still not been announced is just one sign of the decay of the system of ‘representative democracy’ in the Caribbean.

Increasingly, elections across the region are marked by social antagonism and conflict over the results as the losing party denounces the outcome as fraudulent and sometimes encourages supporters to take to the street in protests.  The recent declaration from Denzil Douglas, leader of the opposition St Kitts and Nevis Labour Party (SKNLP)  that his party could not in good conscience concede the June 5, 2020, General Elections as “being free, fair and free from fear” is symptomatic of the situation.  There have also been protests over the elections in Dominica in December 2019 and in St Vincent in 2015, when the opposition National Democratic Party (NDP) refused to accept the results, and called for mass protests and civil disobedience. Trinidad and Tobago goes to the polls on 10 August in what is certain to be a closely contested dogfight between the incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM) and opposition United National Congress (UNC).

Historically, the system of ‘representative democracy’ in the Caribbean is a product of European colonialism in the region. The main colonial powers violently seized territories and established both the slave economies and their corresponding system of governance, in the form of ‘representative democracy’.  For example, Britain established its Westminster system in its Caribbean colonies. This existed in two main forms. In the Crown Colonies, such as Trinidad and St Lucia, a governor, who represented the English monarch and was appointed by London, ruled together with a council of the main plantation owners who he chose. In the other colonies, such as Barbados and Jamaica, this system was supplemented by a Lower House whose members were elected by the plantation owners and big merchants on the basis of a franchise, qualified by property and wealth. Thus, the system of ‘representative democracy’ was introduced into the Caribbean as one of the mechanisms for maintaining slavery and colonial rule.

Building on their struggles against enslavement, as early as 1838 following abolition, the people were demanding that the franchise be expanded. One hundred years later, when the working people across the region took centre stage with their mass uprising against their social conditions, their demands for self -government and universal suffrage  were unstoppable and pushed Britain’s colonial rule into a crisis.

Universal Suffrage

Despite strong opposition from Britain’s war time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who declared, “I have not become the king’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”, advice from the Colonial Office warned him, with regard to Jamaica, that “… I doubt whether the position can be held there much longer without some serious trouble, if we proceed as we are doing”. In these circumstances, the British colonialists were compelled to grant both universal suffrage and self-government to Jamaica in 1944, making it the first British colony in the Caribbean to achieve this. However, this concession was accompanied by a veiled threat from the British that the Jamaican people should use their new freedoms ‘responsibly’.

Coup and Military Occupation

The significance of this threat became clear, when 9 years later, the people of Guyana used their newly gained universal suffrage to elect the representatives of the anti-colonial movement. The British and US denounced the leaders of this movement as communists, organised a coup that overthrew the government and militarily occupied the country. By 1962 universal suffrage had been achieved in Britain’s Caribbean colonies, with St Kitts and Nevis the latest to gain independence in 1983. In Holland’s colonies in the region, universal suffrage was achieved in 1948 with Suriname moving to independence in 1975, while in France’s colonies, universal suffrage was achieved in 1944, but apart from revolutionary Haiti in 1804, none of her colonies have yet achieved independence.

From the 1930s uprisings emerged trade unions and mass political parties that have come to dominate the political scene in the independent countries across the region.  Most of these parties were labour parties formed under the strong influence of Fabian socialism which was a dominant force within Britain’s Labour party at that time and this colonial influence was to have a major effect on the reformist approaches adopted by these parties. Many of them split, with breakaway factions establishing new parties and leading to the current two party system. For example, in Jamaica, the Jamaica Labour Party emerged from the People’s National Party, in Barbados the Democratic Labour Party emerged from the Barbados Labour Party and in St Lucia, the United Workers Party emerged from the St Lucia Labour Party and so on.

Party System

Today, the system of party government across the region operates on the basis of patronage. Parties exist for the sole reason of gathering enough votes to win elections and anything goes in order to achieve that goal. The struggle between the contending parties to take control of the government has become increasingly vicious since those involved consider the stakes to be very high. Winning the election means not only opportunities for personal enrichment for the leading members of these parties but also the possibility of dispensing government contracts, jobs and services  to their followers.

Buying and Selling Votes

The fact that across the Caribbean, people’s fundamental human rights such as the right to a livelihood, to shelter, to access to health care, even to water and electricity are not respected creates an ideal climate for the system of patronage to flourish. In these circumstances, bribery, fraud and the buying and selling of votes are standard features of the election campaigns. In some countries, criminal gangs in the pay of the political parties act as enforcers to deliver the votes on the day. Into this toxic mix has recently been added the interference of the imperial ‘political consultancies’, who for a price, will put at the disposal of the contending parties the latest in digital techniques for achieving their goals. And not far behind these are the representatives of the international elections monitoring industry who, with accountability to no one, have taken to themselves the power to declare whether the elections were ‘free and fair’ and which results are valid or invalid.   

Spectators

The people of the Caribbean remain spectators to this ugly spectacle. They understand from bitter experience that once the election is finished the politicians and their promises will disappear until the next election and many may hope that somehow this time it will be different. However, what the situation points to is that in the system of ‘representative democracy’ the people are disempowered and that the successful struggles of the previous generations for universal suffrage and self -government have not solved this problem. Today, the challenge facing the masses of people of the region is to work out how to break out of the limitations of ‘representative democracy’ and empower themselves to be the decision makers.     

[Protesters oppose the results of the 2015 St Vincent elections. Header Photo – I Witness News]

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