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‘Caesarism’ abounds around us

Imagine ThatI shared a couple of my earlier articles with my good friend Professor Hilbourne Watson (Barbadian intellectual giant) and, as usual, his response was swift and cutting, highly critical of the political class. And if there is one branch of the Central Government that has had its fair share of criticism, it is the executive branch (the Cabinet) and especially the Prime Minister, given the central role he/she plays in the political system.

Though I would love to do so, clearly it is impossible to speak to the totality of the issues that confront this institution. In any event, my concern is largely related to the issue of the integrity of the national system. At this point I should add I normally assume –– given the visibility of our political leaders and the fact almost every night Government ministers are paraded across our television news, whether or not they have anything meaningful to share with the public –– citizens are very familiar with the basic operation of our political system and the centrality of the Cabinet and
the Prime Minister.

However, over the years, I have seen the confusion on the part of many university students about governmental institutions and responsibilities. So though my objective is not to try to mimic any of my many lectures to my students on this subject, I did promise to provide a space that would contribute to the education of our people. In that regard, to make some sense of the possibility of this body contributing to the weakness of the national integrity system, I will at times address the nature and functioning of that body.

Larry Diamond (political sociologist and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University) –– one of the most prolific writers on democracies –– maintains that to achieve robust democracy, the executive branch of government cannot overwhelm the others and concentrate excessive powers in its own hands. In the interest of transparency, accountability and democracy, effective institutions of governance have to be built in order to constrain/contain the nearly unlimited discretion of rulers, to open their decisions and their transactions to inspection and to hold them accountable before the law, the constitution, and the public interest.

In respect of the American political system, Diamond further argues there is a tendency towards “Caesarism”, a situation in which the executive disdains Parliament, and scorns “independent political minds”. The same may be said of some Caribbean political executives.

It has often been suggested the chief executive in the Caribbean (the prime minister) enjoys too much power and this is rather unhealthy for a democracy. Indeed, borrowing from Lord Hailsham (senior Conservative politician and later lord chancellor under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) in his celebrated assault on Britain’s system of “elective dictatorship”, Caribbean political systems too may be so described, given what Diamond refers to as the overweening and unaccountable concentration of power in the system. 

Much of this negative attention is related to the fact our political system seems to be devoid of meaningful checks on the exercise of executive authority. This is largely due to the fact Westminster constitutions provide for a political situation in which the legislature and executive are effectively combined in a single authority –– what most of us refer to as the fusion of power.

That fusion has its clear advantages as it provides for the easy passage of legislation, and avoids the grid lock of decision-making so typical of the American political system which is based on the near total separation of powers.

This, it is argued, is the real Achilles heel of our model of Government, for it does not lend itself to accountability and transparency. This is, of course, attributable to the conventions of Westminster parliamentary democracy that requires strict party discipline, non-cross voting on the floor of Parliament, secrecy, and the collective responsibility rule that perhaps is increasingly problematic for persons.

For those who are unaware of the confidentiality rule, it demands three things. Every member must accept and if necessary defend Cabinet decisions even if he/she is opposed and dislikes them, unless he/she chooses to resign. A minister may therefore find himself in the curious position of publicly defending a policy and declaring his support, and indeed expounding the virtues of a policy which he in fact hates and vehemently opposed in Cabinet.

This convention also makes it critical that there be secrecy about disagreements in Cabinet, since revelations of such would mean ministers were not presenting a united position. But we have seen increasing frustration with this throughout the Caribbean and certainly in Barbados. Let us not forget Minister David Estwick’s public disagreement with his colleagues, and before that those who voted against Prime Minister Erskine Sandiford.

But I guess a minister is more likely to play his hand in a context where Government has only a slim working majority. After all, what can the Prime Minister do? Behead him? And what value is that to the Government operating under a bare working majority under Westminster arrangements?

The third aspect of collective responsibility is the confidence rule, which dictates that Government will only stay in power in so far as it continues to maintain the confidence of Parliament, in this case the House of Assembly.

Thus, given the above, and in combination with the first-past-the-post system that encourages exaggerated support for winning political parties, Parliament has been virtually rendered an ineffective tool of political and legislative accountability.

We have seen several instances throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean where one political party has won every single seat in the House of Representatives, a feat which was accomplished twice by Keith Mitchell’s New National Party in 1999 and 2013 and, of course, in St Vincent and the Grenadines in 1989 when James Mitchell’s National Democratic Party won all of the 15 parliamentary seats.

Barbados came close, when Owen Arthur’s BLP won 26 of the then 28 constituencies, as did St Lucia in 1997 when Kenny Anthony’s St Lucia Labour Party won 16 of the 17 constituencies. So how effective can the legislative branch be in such a context?

Under such circumstances it is difficult to unseat a prime minister who has such control over Parliament and of cabinet in whom
he/she chooses.

The chief executive has such tremendous power, that most would agree in the absence of significant ex post accountability mechanisms, it is unhealthy for a democracy. Matthew S. R. Palmer (a judge and legal scholar) therefore argues that in the absence of these ex post behavioural regulations –– binding checks and balances –– the political executive behaves in a dictatorial fashion. For him, once an election has been held, the successful party in a pure model of the Westminster system is effectively entitled to exercise power as it sees fit, subject only to the incentives provided by the prospect of another electoral competition.

With that in mind, there has been quite a substantial body of research done on how the political executive can be made more accountable. Indeed, quite apart from jettisoning the existing political model in its entirety, many have suggested the introduction of ex post mechanisms such as the ombudsman. Others have proposed a semi-presidential model similar to the French political system as
it would introduce greater balance in the political system.

Still others have recommended a strengthening of the legislative branch, in particular the opposition, and a divorcing of the cabinet from the legislative branch altogether. The suggestion the Senate be empowered and sanitized of the control of the Prime Minister is also a useful one. But, as with everything, we must consider the overall impact of such changes on the decisiveness of the
current model.

There is a tendency, however, to suggest time or term limits may be warranted, given the unassailable power of prime ministers. Indeed, in Trinidad and Tobago, former prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar successfully piloted a time limit legislation that would restrict prime ministers to two terms in office or a maximum of ten years.

As early as 1819, Simón Bolívar in his famous discourse at the Congress of Angostura argued that unlimited terms in office was antithetical to democracy. For him, “the continuation of the authority in the same individual has frequently been the end of democratic governments. Repeated elections are essentials in popular systems, because nothing is more dangerous than to leave for a long term the same citizen in power. The people get used to obey him, and he gets used to command them; from were usurpation and tyranny is originated”.

Long before Bolivar, rotation of office was advocated by Aristotle and Cicero as a fundamental characteristic of democratic government, and was practised in ancient Athens and Rome and the Renaissance city-states of Florence and Venice.

James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the United States Constitution on the other hand disagreed and contended non re-eligibility would “destroy the great incitement to merit public esteem by taking away the hope of being rewarded with a reappointment. It may give a dangerous turn to one of the strongest passions in the human breast. The love of fame is the great spring to noble and illustrious actions. Shut the civil road to glory and he may be compelled to seek it by the sword.

“It will tempt him to make the most of the short space of time allotted him to accumulate wealth and provide for his friends. It will produce violations of the very constitution it is meant to secure”.

So we are confronted with a conundrum. How best to resolve it? That should be left to the people to decide. It ought not to be merely a decision made by politicians and their close circle of friends.

The right type of [leader] is democratic.
He must not consider himself a superior sort of personage. He must actually feel democratic; it is not enough that he try to pose as democratic –– he must be democratic, otherwise the veneer, the sheen, would wear off, for you can’t fool a body of intelligent . . . working men for very long. He must ring true.
–– Thomas Coleman Du Pont, American engineer and politician (1863-1930).

(Cynthia Barrow-Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)

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