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Elections Across the Region. Part One

Education 19 Aug, 2020 Follow News

Dr. Livingston Smith is a Professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He is also Director of the CXC Education Volunteer programme

Countries in the Anglophone Caribbean have largely held to the Westminster system bequeathed to them by their former colonial bosses. Political parties move in and out of office, and there is an understanding that human rights must be protected. Religious freedoms are largely guaranteed and compared to other parts of the world, the media is considerably free. There is, largely, freedom of association and expression, and citizens have the hard-earned right to vote. In most of these countries, elections are undoubtedly free and fair, and in others, there are efforts to deal with the known blemishes.

The act of voting is one in which each citizen can participate. A system of one person, one vote allows for equality, if only in this one instance. Each person’s vote is equal to one and is counted as such. Thus, in this way, the effects of class, race, economic status, gender, and family background are brought under subjection, so to speak, even though, as students of political science know, these factors all affect how the voter decides to vote. Done within the confines of democratic decency, the people’s vote significantly helps to clarify their collective desires.

When West Indians won universal adult suffrage, beginning with Jamaica in 1944, the way was paved for the development of genuine democracy. Each person could now vote irrespective of class and race. It was supposed that the vote would constrain government to consider the wishes of the people and that it would discipline those elected as they were now forced to be mindful of the views of the public. And, to a significant extent, it has done this.

Ideally, in election time, the citizen should be treated to a variety of positions on issues, the proposed solutions, and the persons from which to choose. The citizen weighs the options, and without coercion or material inducements, makes a choice and confirms this at the voting station.

Guyana had its election on March 2, Trinidad and Tobago, August 10. Jamaicans will go to the polls next month, September 3, and Caymanians will vote on May 26 next year, in the second general election to be held based on the one person, one vote single-member electoral district system. This first of a two-part article, discusses the elections in these countries, what has happened and what are the expectations in those still to go through the process.

 

Guyana

The election results in Guyana were eventually decided after months of fiasco since the snap elections were held on March 2. Having become oil-rich, this was a most consequential event. This country should be producing 750,000 barrels of oil per day within five years, and so both parties were anxious to have access to these funds. Guyana has a 65-seat National Assembly that was contested by nine Political parties, the main ones being the APNU-AFC alliance and the Peoples Progressive Party, PPP/C. The Partnership for National Unity (APNU) is a combination of several small parties with the People’s National Congress in addition to the Alliance for Change (AFC). A re-count of the votes on June 8 gave the PPP/C party victory, but a series of events, inclusive of injunctions and CCJ ruling, delayed the final pronouncement of this outcome until August 2, 2020.

Guyanese politics have historically been driven by ethnicity-based parties. The World Population Review notes that for decades, the Guyanese people have aligned themselves to political parties based on a shared heritage. The largest ethnic group in Guyana is the Indo-Guyanese which accounts for 44% of the total population. The next largest ethnic group is the Afro-Guyanese at about 30%; another 17% of the population identifies as mixed heritage, and the final 9% are indigenous Guyanese.

Noteworthy is the fact that Guyana is the only country in the Anglophone Caribbean that utilizes proportional representation. Proportional representation as a system dispenses with constituencies. The number of seats in Parliament is awarded to the contesting parties in proportion to the total votes which they receive nation-wide. For example, if a party wins thirty percent of the vote, it is allowed the same percent of seats in the assembly. This system is much friendlier to smaller political parties, as they are not required to win a constituency to gain a seat but instead to gain a certain percentage of the overall vote. In this system, it is possible for smaller parties to hold sufficient seats to create alliances with a minority party to form a coalition Government.

The issues centred around the economy, corruption, the management of the new oil resources, education, leadership, among others.

In the end, the new PPP/C government gained 233,336 votes at the March 2 General and Regional Elections and will enter the 12th Parliament with 33 seats. The APNU+AFC with 217,920 votes, will have 31 seats while the joinder list of A New United Guyana (ANUG), the Liberty and Justice Party (LJP) and The New Movement (TNM) with 5, 214 votes, will be allocated one seat.

Its leader, forty-year-old Irfaan Ali, has been sworn in as President; former Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defense Force, Mark Phillips, as Prime Minister; and former President Bharrat Jagdeo, as Vice-President.

 

Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad, like most of the other English-speaking Caribbean countries, uses the ‘First past the Post System’. This means that, as is now the case in the Cayman Islands, each person belongs to a constituency or voting district, and when it is time for voting, each person votes for one candidate, most likely from two who are representing both major parties. In the case of Trinidad and Tobago that has a forty-one seat parliament, the first party to win at least twenty-one, is the first to ‘past the post’ and so wins the election and forms the government. This voting method is pretty much the standard in most democracies.

The result of the election allows for a straightforward decision as to which party has won. It is possible though, that a party wins the election by winning most of the constituencies but ends up not getting most of the votes overall as each constituency does not have the same number of voters. In fact, then, a government can be elected but not based on gaining the majority of the national votes. In the first-past-the-post, FPTP or FPP; sometimes formally called single-member plurality voting or SMP electoral system, a political party can end up with a significant number of the overall votes, but not winning in any constituency and so gets no seat in Parliament.

In Trinidad and Tobago, elections were held on Monday, August 10, to elect 41 members of its Parliament. The People’s National Movement (PNM) and the United National Congress (PNC) were the two main parties which contested. In fact, altogether, fourteen parties contested seats in Trinidad while four competed in Tobago only. Though not as deeply entrenched as in the case of Guyana, the main political parties are supported by ethnic alliances. The historical tendency is for Trinidadians with African roots to choose the PNM, and Trinidadians with Indian roots, the UNC.

The main issues had to do with the downturn in the economy, the high and rising crime rate, the management of Covid-19, more autonomy for Tobago, among others.

The incumbent Prime Minister, Keith Rowley, leader of The Peoples National Movement (PNC), won 22 seats, along with the popular vote, retaining the government, to the UNC’s 19.

 

Democracies with distinctive political cultures

Ideological differences between political parties across the region rarely exist. Since the end of the Cold War and the western coalescing around capitalist ideas, discussions of political ideologies as alternative paths, have virtually ended, except for a very few cases. Political discussions and debates centre on which party can do a better job with the economy, crime and violence, delivering appropriate educational outcomes, and so on.

Even though each of these islands operates as a democracy, each has its own distinctive political culture. By political culture I mean the distinctive ways in which people conduct their politics. It means the broad patterns of beliefs that form part of a people’s political consciousness, how they acquired these beliefs, and how they are put in practice. Even though it is conceptually distinct from the broader norms and values of the society itself, an attempt to trace the development of political culture in a specific society will inevitably have to consider the broader culture. The two are fundamentally interrelated. The major factors that have a direct influence on the political culture of a society are its political history, political institutions and structures, political socialization, socio-economic structure, geo politics and geo-culture. Each country is influenced by its history. Significant past experiences make deep impacts on the nature of a society’s psycho-social, socio-economic, and socio-political structures. Political learning from political experience, institutional change, political socialization and broad changes in the economic and social structure, international factors including colonialism, cultural diffusion, and the functioning and habitual practice of the political system itself are factors that shape how people think about and practice their politics.


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