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Elective Dictatorship: Exhibit I the Caribbean

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In recent months the people of the Caribbean have been witnesses to the crystallization of a political and socio-economic phenomenon that has been creeping through the region for over 25 years now. But it has been only in the last 10 years or so that dictatorships by way of popular, supposedly democratic processes like periodic voting in national elections, have now dominated the political landscape in the region. In 1976 Britain's Lord Hailsham famously coined the term 'elective dictatorship' to describe the extent to which governments, in a parliamentary democratic system or its hybrid versions, controls the parliament of the day.

Essentially, the term implies that, for example, in the UK's political system, when elected, a government can essentially take whatever actions it wants without effective scrutiny or fear of popular redress. What happened in Britain in 1976 is true today in the Caribbean, North America and beyond.

Just a few weeks ago the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP), the most conservative political party in the English-speaking Caribbean, won a massive landslide victory at the polls completely obliterating its political rival and challenger the center-left Peoples National Party (PNP). This party with 49 of 63 seats in the parliament is now unchallenged and has effectively set aside any checks and balances that used to be the task of the opposition party. Now with a very weak opposition reduced to just "making political noises" and unable to influence or curtail any of the government's excesses or activities, in this scenario the JLP-led government of Prime Minister Andrew Holness can name his pet poodle to the senate and there's absolutely nothing that the PNP can do about it since the ruling party government can do this both legally and with guaranteed party-line support. They have the majority of the votes to make any and all laws that it thinks necessary pass in the Jamaican Parliament.

The same is true in Grenada where the New National Party (NNP) - also a right of center party - government led by veteran Prime Minister Keith Claudius Mitchell controls all of that island's 15 parliamentary seats. The opposition New Democratic Congress (NDC) is relegated to a fumbling side-show that can neither influence or determine the outcome of any policy, decision or activity by the elected dictatorship. And the sad thing for BOTH opposition parties in Jamaica and Grenada is that this kind of sweeping dictatorship by the ballot can and will use their respective incumbencies to remain in power for many, many years to come.

The direct contributing factor for this kind of government is the First Past the Post, "winner takes all" system that has the effect of creating a clear two-party political system. This 'winner takes all system', means that minor political parties find it incredibly difficult to establish a presence in Parliament or build any meaningful support among the people. This is because votes cast for smaller parties in most constituencies are unlikely to topple one of the two major parties. For example, in the 2019 General Election in England, the Conservative Party won 365 seats and the Greens won 1 seat. Nationally, it took an average of 38,264 votes for each seat the Conservatives won, but 865, 707 votes led to the Greens winning just one seat. The fact that minor parties find it difficult to make an electoral impact means that power swings between the two major parties, and the swing between them is usually enough to ensure a majority in Parliament.

In the most recent election in the Caribbean region, the voter turnout was a paltry 37% even lower that the 43% in the 2016 general election. What this means is that a whopping 63% of the Jamaican people did not favor either political party, remained home, and did not vote for either one. Such voter apathy and dissatisfaction are a feature of these kinds of elections even though the "winning party" garners a large chunk of the available seats but commands less that 50% of the popular vote. Indeed, also look no further than the American two-party system where voter turnout is abysmally low and voter disenfranchisement and apathy rules supreme. And there can be absolutely no doubt that President Donald Trump is the embodiment of an elected autocratic leader who flouts traditional norms, procedures and practices of United States representative democracy - with impunity.

Today's democracies are like dysfunctional families: the presumably happy ones resemble each other, yet each is unhappy in their own way. In the United States in 2016 it was not the erstwhile losers of globalization or the countryside versus urban elites that handed victory to Donald Trump. No, it was the white middle class that joined with the Christian Right and working-class non-college educated white people and their disdain for so-called "North East and West elites," who threw their support behind this dodgy character. This right-wing populist built an electoral alliance that gave answers to diverse sectors of the country. Trump tapped into the fear and anxieties of a population dreading the rapidly changing demographics in the United States.

For example, he promised family values to hard-right evangelists, coddled the military and police, economic orthodoxy to the markets and the establishment, a break with and from traditional politics to those fed-up with corruption and morbid, pervasive and endemic hatred towards "socialist" Democrats. Of course, promises are merely comforts to fools and for all Trump's bombastic pronunciations about draining the Washington swamp today he's neck-deep and wallowing it.

The major thread running through the elective dictatorships in the United States and the Caribbean is rigid party loyalty. In these political systems it is exceptionally difficult to become a government leader without standing as part of a political party. The fundamental fact is that members of parliament (CARICOM) and the United States Congress depend and rely on their respective political parties to get elected, and they also rely on their party for their career development and advancement. So, going against party ethics and ideology is a sure way to end a political career. Just look at the Republican Party's blind fealty to Donald Trump and their great reluctance to even offer luke-warm, tepid criticism of his policies and practices.

In the Caribbean any criticism of the ruling party is immediately interpreted as political treachery and would get the offender sidelined, shunned and relegated to the "back bench." In the United States any real or perceived disloyalty and break with party orthodoxy results in the offender being "primaried" by his/her own party choosing someone to challenge the political offender. The result is that inter-party rebellions are exceedingly rare as everyone as everyone gets in line and tows the party's line.

 

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MICHAEL DERK ROBERTS Small Business Consultant, Editor, and Social Media & Communications Expert, New York Over the past 20 years I've been a top SMALL BUSINESS CONSULTANT and POLITICAL CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST in Brooklyn, New York, running (more...)
 

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