Our Constitution and the Power of a Prime Minister
When Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit invited Dominicans to express their opinions on the qualifications and responsibilities of a prime minister it was obvious that he was asking the nation to compare Roosevelt Skerrit, the veteran prime minister, to Lennox Linton, the aspirant.
In other words Mr. Skerrit was playing politics by asking Dominicans to choose him, the devil they have known for ten years and ignore Lennox Linton, the devil that they will only get to know if the government changes.
But it is our view that any discussions on the role and responsibilities of a prime minister would be rather superficial if that analysis is not conducted in the context of the Westminster system of government that we inherited from Great Britain.
A number of political commentators have described Skerrit as the embodiment of an elected dictator. Indeed he is. Our system of government creates leaders like Skerrit and, we must hasten to add, Skerrit is no different than any other prime minister in the English Speaking Caribbean today. A number of political thinkers in the region support that view. For instance, in an article entitled "The Truth of the Matter" professor David Hinds of Claremont Graduate University in California describes our form of government as an "authoritarian form of governance fitted into democratic clothing". Dr. Hinds believes that the Caribbean has abused the Westminster arrangements handed down to us at independence.
"My argument has been that whereas Westminster's majoritarian and winner-take-all principles work well in England because of the country's homogeneous racial make-up and its anti-dictatorial political culture built up over a long period of time, they have proved inadequate in the Caribbean because of our racial and political-tribal dynamics and anti-democratic political culture. While the British culture has contained the authoritarian spirit of the Westminster model, the Caribbean culture has pushed it to its limits. We have in effect transformed Westminster by stretching its authoritarian spirit to the point of no return," Dr Hinds states.
He added: "The lure of government's tremendous power has transformed the political party into a power-machine that crushes everything its way, including opposing parties and civil-society organizations. Winning the executive branch of government is the ultimate prize as this guarantees control over everything else.
Professor Hinds continued: "The Caribbean politician and political party are driven by power as an end in itself. Political competition is a high intensity exercise. Winning governmental power means control of all institutions and all facets of life in the society, and losing power means total isolation from governance. The society is thus divided into two warring tribes, who are socialized to see their destiny in the presence of their party in the halls of power. Thus when a party loses, the tribe loses.
"How does the Westminster model fits into this? One example is the lack of clear separation of powers and built-in checks and balances, which potentially encourages the concentration of power in one branch. The Westminster system is based in theory on legislative supremacy whereby the executive and judicial branches are subject to the supremacy of the legislative branch. But the majoritarian principle gives control of the legislature to the ruling party, thus actually transforming the legislature into rubber stamp of the ruling party and making the Executive the de facto supreme branch".
In other words, the party is paramount and the prime minister as the leader of the party is almighty. He decides who from his party contests elections, and also who forms the Cabinet after the party wins. He appoints the Speaker and the President (in that regard, Parliament's apparent appointment of the President is a smoke screen) and ultimately the composition of Parliament. Undoubtedly, the Prime Minister is king and the king is the master of all he surveys. And that includes the party.
In fact prime ministers in any Caribbean country find it impossible to separate their roles as party leader and prime minister. That fact was lampooned by Carolyn Cooper, professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica in an article about the dilemma that Bruce Golding, the former Prime Minister, faced so frequently. Professor Cooper wrote that if Golding was ever confronted with the issue of the separation of the role of party leader and that of prime minister he would say:
"But of course I and I is one and the same. Jah Rastafari! Is because I and I is leader of the JLP that I and I is prime minister.
"My party, supported by wealthy patrons to whom I and I is obligated, won the elections and I and I automatically became PM. How do you expect I and I to distinguish between these roles?
"I and I cannot split I and I self in two and say, this minute I one is PM, next minute I two is leader of the JLP! I and I is just like the I-Three, except that is only two of I and I. In all my decisions, I and I is a rational man, acting coherently and unambiguously. Selassie I (and I)."
On the subject of roles and responsibilities of the Prime Minister, Dr. William Riviere has provided a similar analysis on the extreme power that the Constitution inadvertently bestows on a prime minister. In his column 'You and the Law" published weekly in the Sun Newspaper Dr. William Riviere wrote recently: "Those who "gave" us our Constitution made a fundamental miscalculation...Thus, in the unwritten Constitution of the United Kingdom the office of Prime Minister meant and was, in practice, taken to mean the institution of the Prime Ministership. But, in our Constitution, by contrast, although it meant the institution of the Prime Ministership, it was taken to mean in our political culture the individual person of the Prime Minister.
"In such a situation it was sheer fantasy to believe that the Westminster model of government would be appropriate for newly-emerging nation-states like ours."
So let the nation talk about the role and responsibilities of the head of government but we must make a clear distinction between what should be, according to the constitution, and what actually happens.