All of the political systems of the independent countries in the Caribbean are technically democratic, although there is some debate about how democratic some of them are, such as the case of Cuba. These political systems differ from each other in terms of their systems of government, political party systems and the electoral systems they use.

The democratic systems in the Caribbean differ in terms of the governmental systems they adopt, which are usually one of two types: presidential or parliamentary. A presidential system is one in which a republic is formed and a constitution establishes a division of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. The president is the leader of the executive branch and has broad legislative authority. The legislative branch, which may be divided into one or two houses (a unicameral or bicameral system) is centered on the congress, which exercises its legislative functions without infringing on the president’s legislative rights. The president is directly elected by the voters and not by the congress or parliament. The best known presidential democratic republic in modern history is the United States. Under a parliamentary system, meanwhile, the executive power is elected by the parliament (the legislative power) and must answer to the parliament. This is known as the principle of political confidence, in the sense that the legislative and executive powers are closely tied and the executive depends on the confidence of the parliament to continue in power. In the Caribbean, the only exception to this pattern of presidential and parliamentary systems of government is found in Suriname, which has a hybrid system. In Suriname, since 1991, the country has a political system very similar to a parliamentary system but with a president who is elected indirectly and has considerable constitutional power.

At the same time, many of the islands and territories continue under colonial regimes (such as the cases of Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands) or have been fully incorporated into the country that once colonized them (such as the case of the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe and French Guiana). In most of these cases, in terms of local and municipal elections, these governmental systems follow the rules defined by the constitutions, decrees and laws of the empire of which they are a part.

As for political parties, there are basically three kinds of systems: multiparty, two-party and single-party systems. A two-party system is one in which the political parties form into two political coalitions, leading to the exclusion of or active discrimination against minority parties. In this system, minority parties are often regional in nature or ideologically extreme. Defenders of this system say it enhances political stability by excluding extremist sectors that could otherwise achieve parliamentary or presidential representation. On the other hand, its detractors argue that the exclusion of these minorities is undemocratic.

Multiparty systems are those in which a large number of political parties have possibilities of winning executive power and in which the legislative power is divided among a large number of factions. There are many countries with multiparty systems, such as Argentina,Finland, France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Chile, Guatemala, Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico, Russia, India and Japan. Also, some countries that had two parties until recently now have a multiparty system, such as Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. There are also multiparty systems in the Caribbean, particularly in Haiti, Suriname and Guyana. Haiti has approximately 28 political parties, Suriname 26, and Guyana 15.

Finally, a single-party system is one in which there is only one political party, whether because it is the only party that can legally present itself as an option in elections or because although there are other legal political parties, power has been concentrated mainly in a single party for a long period of time. These latter cases, though officially multiparty or two-party systems, are de facto single-party systems. Single-party systems have arisen in many countries that became independent after being an administrative colony, whether because of the supremacy of one party or by legal decree. The world has seen a wide variety of single-party systems, which have been based on parties that were communist, fascist or nationalist.

The following table summarizes the various governmental systems, political parties and the number of legislative houses in the various Caribbean island and continental nations:

Antigua and BarbudaXParliamentaryBicameral
British Virgin IslandsX
Cayman IslandsXParliamentaryUnicameral
Costa RicaXPresidentialUnicameral
Dominican RepublicXPresidentialBicameral

As a general rule, the type of government in the Caribbean is usually determined by the colonial past. The former Spanish and Portuguese colonies that began the process of decolonization and independence during the second half of the 19th century maintained presidential systems, while the former British colonies that won independence during the second half of the 20th century (excluding the United States and Canada) maintained parliamentary systems. The exception to this generalization in the Caribbean is Guyana, which like the United States has a presidential system despite having gained independence from a colonial empire with a parliamentary system. The organic structure of the parliaments in the English-speaking Caribbean is often bicameral, with an upper house designated by the executive power and a lower house or national assembly elected by direct popular vote in districts. The head of state or governor general does the appointment of members of the upper house based on recommendations by the prime minister and the opposition leader (a figure who in many cases had constitutional authority). In three of the English-speaking Caribbean territories, however, the parliaments are unicameral: Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Kitts and Nevis. Therefore, the institutional characteristics of the English-speaking Caribbean are mainly based on the adoption of the British Westminster model of majority rule. In practice, with the exception of Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago, which are republics, nine of the twelve independent states recognize the queen of England as the head of state, represented by a designated governor general who performs purely formal functions.

The situation in the English-speaking Caribbean contrasts sharply with the Central American countries in the Caribbean. While the English-speaking Caribbean is seen as one of the most democratic parts of the world (since the 1970s, of course, when many of the islands and territories gained their independence), Central America, by contrast, is widely recognized as a region with high levels of conflict and a weak democratic tradition. It should be noted, however, that Central America has made significant progress in increasing democracy and openness since the 1980s (a period that Huntington has called the “third wave of democratization in Latin America”) through successful efforts of pacification and inclusion of sectors previously excluded from the political system.

The Greater Antilles islands that were formerly Spanish colonies, such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, often compare more favorably with the Central American Caribbean countries than with the English-speaking countries and islands, particularly in the cases of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In Cuba, for example, there is only one official political party, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC for its Spanish acronym), although other parties have been legal since 1992 and many are now active, such as the Cuba Christian Democratic Party, the Cuban Social Democratic Current, the Democratic Social-Revolutionary Party of Cuba, the Democratic Solidarity Party, the Liberal Party of Cuba, and the Social Democratic Coordinator of Cuba. But regardless of party affiliation or preference, all candidates run as independents in the elections. All political parties are prohibited from organizing political campaigns, rallies or speeches, including the PCC. Single-party systems are legitimized by holding free elections, whether for president, parliament or other legislative body. A single-party system should not be confused with a dictatorship, in which leaders are not chosen through democratic elections. Also, in theory, a single-party system does not limit citizens’ rights. On occasion, however, a dictator may adopt a pseudo-single-party system and corrupt the electoral process to try to legitimize the system. While single-party systems may claim to be democratic, some political scientists do not consider them to be democratic if they do not constitute a polyarchy.

In the Dominican Republic, there are also signs of a political culture that is highly personalized, authoritarian and anti-democratic. In fact, the electoral reform of 1998, which separated the presidential elections from the congressional elections, placing the congressional elections at the mid-term point of the presidential term, was intended to eliminate the coattail effect of the presidential candidate, which along with the highly personalized political culture and an exaggerated focus on the presidency, led to authoritarian and “Bonapartist” regimes. The reform did not bring about the desired or expected effects, however, and the apathy and abstention in congressional elections was extraordinarily high (48%). Additionally, while the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD for its Spanish acronym) won the presidency, the opposition Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD for its Spanish acronym) swept the congressional elections of 1998 after the death of its historical leader, Peña Gómez, from cancer of the pancreas just six days before the elections. The party won 25 of the 29 senate seats, an absolute majority in the lower house, and many of the mayoral races in the country. This created an executive-legislative conflict as the presidential elections approached. Many analysts believe that if this pattern becomes a trend, it could be threatening to a country with little democratic experience, few resources and an authoritarian political culture.

There is also a debate in the Caribbean about the shortcomings of democracy in the two-party systems that predominate in the English-speaking islands. In fact, in many of the islands with two-party systems, what we truly find is a single-party system. In other words, although there are two parties, one of them has held power nearly indefinitely. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, the People’s National Movement remained in power from 1956 to 1986. In Antigua, the Antigua Labour Party has maintained almost exclusive control of power since 1951. In St. Kitts and Nevis, the Saint Kitts and Nevis Labour Party has not lost an election since 1962. And in Grenada, the Grenada United Labour Party was in power from 1951 to 1979, the year that Maurice Bishop led a Marxist coup de etat.

There is also a debate about the shortcomings of democracy in countries with multi-party systems of government and relatively small legislative bodies. Some political scientists have pointed to the size of the legislature as one of the factors that can promote or impede the emergence of a multi-party system and proportional representation. In other words, the larger the assembly or the larger the number of seats up for election, the greater the odds that it will produce more proportional representation and a higher number of parties in the legislature. Problems often arise in a multi-party system with a small number of seats in the legislative assembly because it can be difficult to form a majority through alliances among opposing parties. Still, in the English-speaking Caribbean, where the “first past the pole” system is often used, it has been observed that voters often give parliamentary majorities to the victorious party and stable governing coalitions have been formed. Jamaica and Barbados are clear examples of two-party systems with alternating control of power and relatively small legislative assemblies.


Author: Luis Galanes
Published: July 11, 2012.

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