Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

The Governmental System

Jamaica is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster model, with a functional two- party system. Under this system of government, the prime minister and his cabinet are responsible to the legislature, and universal suffrage exists for citizens over the age of eighteen. The clauses of the 1962 Constitution, which consists of 138 articles in 10 chapters, may be amended by majorities of two-thirds in both houses of Parliament or, if the Senate does not concur, with the approval of a special majority of the electorate voting in referendum.

Jamaica's Constitution entitles anyone born on the island to Jamaican citizenship, which may be revoked if that person becomes a citizen of another country. Children and spouses of Jamaicans also may claim citizenship even if born outside of Jamaica. Chapter 3 of the Constitution grants all persons residing in Jamaica fundamental individual rights and freedoms, such as life, liberty, security of person, property ownership, and protection from arbitrary arrest or detention. The Constitution also guarantees freedom of conscience and expression, including freedom of speech and press; peaceful assembly and association, including the right to join a trade union; freedom of movement and residence within the country and of foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; and due process of law, including protection against double jeopardy or retroactive punishment.

The Constitution forbids inhumane treatment and racial, sexual, or political discrimination. Jamaican women are accorded full equality, and the 1975 Employment Act guarantees them equal pay for the same work. The legal status of women was reflected in the substantial number of women in influential positions in the civil service and government in the 1980s. The Supreme Court is given original jurisdiction over matters concerning civil rights, and cases arising from them are promised a fair hearing within a reasonable time. Individual rights and freedoms are explicitly subject to respect for rights of others and the public interest in matters of defense, order, health, and morality.

Although an independent member of the British Commonwealth of Nations (see Appendix B) since 1962, Jamaica has retained the British monarch as its chief of state. Executive power is vested nominally in the queen but exercised by the governor general, whom the queen appoints on recommendation of the prime minister. The governor general, who has the right to be kept informed on any aspect of the conduct of government, wields the prerogatives of judicial pardon, performs the ceremonial duties of head of state, makes appointments to public offices, formally assents to bills before they can become law, and summons and adjourns Parliament. In most matters, the governor general acts only on the advice of the prime minister, but occasionally on the advice of both the latter and the leader of the opposition, or with the assistance of the Privy Council, whose six members are appointed by the governor general after consultation with the prime minister. At least two members of the Privy Council must be persons holding or having held public office. Its functions are to advise the governor general on exercising the royal prerogative to grant appeals for mercy and on disciplinary matters from the three service commissions. Its decisions can be appealed to the Privy Council in London, which is the final resort.

The cabinet, which is responsible to the House of Representatives, is the "principal instrument of policy." Directed by the prime minister, it usually has had from thirteen to fifteen members heading ministries staffed chiefly by the civil service. During the 1980s, the three most important portfolios have been those of finance and planning, national security, and foreign affairs. The Constitution stipulates that "not less than two nor more than four of the Ministers shall be persons who are members of the Senate."

As a result of the cabinet reorganization of October 1986, ministries were as follows: agriculture; construction; education; foreign affairs and industry; health; justice and attorney general; labor; local government; mining, energy, and tourism; national security; public service; public utilities and transport; social security and consumer affairs; and youth and community development. Ministries were often separated or combined. For example, the Ministry of National Security was combined with the Ministry of Justice in 1974, but separated again in October 1986 as a result of cabinet changes announced by Prime Minister Seaga.

Ministers, especially the prime minister, may hold more than one portfolio, and they may also supervise statutory boards set up to augment the usual departments. Ministers may be assisted by parliamentary secretaries. A cabinet member may lose his position or be forced to resign as a result of losing either his seat in Parliament or the confidence of the prime minister. A minister's power and prestige depend on party standing and loyalty, as well as individual ability.

The prime minister is the most important member of the cabinet and the acknowledged leader of the majority party. The governor general selects as prime minister the party leader favored by the majority of House members. The prime minister selects other cabinet members from Parliament, directs the arrangement and conduct of cabinet business, and acts as the government's chief spokesperson at home and abroad. Control over foreign policy has remained firmly in the hands of the prime minister. The prime minister may be removed by resigning or otherwise ceasing to be a member of the House of Representatives or by being given a vote of no confidence by a majority of House members.

Under Jamaica's two-party system, the leader of the opposition is an institutionalized position, receiving a higher rate of remuneration than ordinary members of Parliament and exercising consultative functions, especially on appointments to public offices. The opposition leader is appointed by the governor general and is either the one who is "best able to command the support of the majority of those who do not support the government," or the leader of the largest single group in opposition. The opposition leader is expected to challenge the government and provide an ever- ready alternative for Parliament and the public. The institutionalized role of the opposition leader and Jamaica's democratic tradition give the opposition considerable freedom to criticize the government.

Modeled after the British Parliament, Jamaica's Parliament is the country's supreme legislative body. In addition to an elected House of Representatives and an appointed Senate (upper house), the Parliament consists of a ceremonial head, who is the queen or her representative, and the governor general. The latter nominates the twenty-one members of the Senate: thirteen on the prime minister's advice and eight on the opposition leader's advice. The sixty House members (formerly fifty-three) are elected by universal adult suffrage for five years (subject to dissolution) in elections held in each of the country's sixty constituencies. The Constitution requires that the prime minister call a general election no later than five years after the first sitting of the previous Parliament. To qualify for appointment to the Senate or for election to the House, a person must be a citizen of Jamaica or another Commonwealth country, be age twenty-one or over, and ordinarily have resided in Jamaica for the immediately preceding twelve months.

In addition to submitting bills, the Senate reviews legislation submitted by the House and may delay legislative bills for seven months and money bills for one month. The Senate delay may be overridden if a majority in the House passes such bills three times in succession. For a constitutional amendment to pass Parliament, however, Senate concurrence is essential. As in many other Commonwealth countries, the existence of an upper house (Senate) permits useful participation in public affairs to those who might not wish to run for election; it also encourages the patronage offerings of the major political parties. The cabinet, which is the executive branch of government responsible to Parliament, must include two to four senators; others may be appointed as parliamentary secretaries to assist cabinet members.

The House of Representatives initiates all financial bills, but other bills may be introduced in either house. Bills designed to implement government policy usually are introduced by a cabinet minister. The House regulates its own procedures and chooses its own officers, including the speaker, who acts as a nonpartisan chairman of proceedings and enjoys considerable prestige. Although Parliament, and particularly its House of Representatives, has a number of standing committees, these have relatively little investigative power; they also have not provided a locus for checking the executive, a task undertaken by the parliamentary opposition.

The conduct of parliamentary business requires the presence of quorums: eight in the Senate and sixteen in the House. Absenteeism, a longstanding problem, often has been criticized publicly. A majority of those present and voting usually make the decisions. Parliamentary sessions must not be held more than six months apart. Elections must take place every five years, but the terms of members of Parliament may be extended twice, each time for one year, in case of war or national emergency. Although the legislature traditionally has enjoyed a high position, effective legislative powers are concentrated in the cabinet.

Members of Parliament are immune from arrest and protected against lawsuits arising from their duties. Each house may exempt members from vacating their seats over conflict of interest matters. Members, however, may be disqualified for insanity, bankruptcy, allegiance to a foreign power, holdings in firms contracting with the government, holding other public office, or conviction for corrupt electoral practices.

The prime minister may call elections earlier than the law requires if his government loses the confidence of the House of Representatives, or if he feels the need to call for a public mandate on an important issue. Thus, the incumbent government holds the initiative, although the Constitution attempts to safeguard the impartiality of the actual process. Elections are supervised by a senior civil servant as chief electoral officer, a staff consisting of a returning officer in each constituency, election clerks, and a polling clerk at each polling station. Votes are counted in the presence of the candidates or their agents to minimize charges of fraud. A returning officer may cast a vote to decide a tie. Constituencies are demarcated by a six-member standing parliamentary committee, but alterations favoring the party in power are not unknown. Security forces vote in advance of election day so that they can be deployed across the island on that date.

Each constituency elects one candidate and the winner requires only a simple majority. Thus, the number of seats won by a party may not reflect accurately the number of votes cast for it, and the disparity in seats won by the two parties is usually higher than the variance between the total votes. Candidates, most of them sponsored by the JLP and PNP, are nominated twenty-three days before an election. The central committees of these two parties select those who will receive the party tickets and the constituencies from which they will run. Each nomination must be accompanied by a deposit, which is forfeited if the candidate receives fewer than one-eighth of the votes cast. Campaign expenses are limited by law, and influencing voters unduly is prohibited. Loopholes exist, however, and have been used.

Although the Constitution is explicitly declared to be supreme, it may be subject to judicial review, as may laws inconsistent with its provisions. A parliament in which the ruling party has a comfortable majority may amend the charter relatively easily in accordance with the traditional doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. The content and concepts of Jamaican law are basically the same as those of Britain. Nevertheless, the Jamaican Parliament occasionally has questioned the relevance of British decisions; statutes enacted by the Jamaican legislative body increasingly have taken into consideration local conditions.

Despite Jamaica's well-developed judicial system, it and the police force were widely criticized in the mid-1980s because of dramatic increases in political and criminal violence. Many believed that the judicial system had deteriorated and that the authority and dignity of the courts had diminished. Critics noted that many of the new judges and lawyers were not as well educated as in the past and lacked self-confidence. Since the early 1970s, only graduates of the three-year West Indies Faculty of Law or the two-year graduate School of Legal Education have been permitted to practice law in Jamaica, whereas previously most Jamaican lawyers received their legal training in Britain. In February 1986, Carl Stone, Jamaica's leading political scientist, criticized what he referred to as the criminal justice system's corrupt practice of bribing juries and rendering corrupt judgments in favor of those who have political or economic power.

Despite antiquated laws and overcrowded jails, Jamaicans generally have respected the rule of law and the system of justice inherited from the British. The principle of habeas corpus, which is rooted in English common law, is stated explicitly in Jamaican statutes enacted either before or since independence. It is also respected by the courts and police. Bail may be granted on a discretionary basis. The courts operate at three broad levels: the Court of Appeal; the Supreme Court; and the Resident Magistrate's Court, of which there are nineteen. Other judicial bodies are the Coroner's Court, Traffic Court, Petty Sessions Court, juvenile courts, Revenue Court, Family Court, and Gun Court (see National Security, this ch.). Justices of the peace, who are local notables without legal training, preside over courts of petty sessions.

The eight-member Court of Appeal is at the apex of the court hierarchy in Jamaica. This court is headed by a president, who is appointed by the governor general on recommendation of the prime minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition. It is also staffed by a chief justice and six other judges appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister and the opposition leader. It sits in two divisions in Kingston throughout the year. A person who is dissatisfied with the decision of another court, except petty sessions, may appeal to this court. Section 110 of the Constitution provides that decisions of the Court of Appeal can be taken on appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London in grave civil or criminal cases, for matters deemed of great public importance, or as decided by Parliament or the Court of Appeal itself. The Privy Council is given final jurisdiction on interpretation of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court is headed by the chief justice, who is appointed in the same manner as the president of the Court of Appeal. It is also staffed by five other judges, a senior puisne judge, and other judicial officials. The Supreme Court has unlimited jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases and can dispense summary justice without jury in certain criminal cases. It sits in Kingston for the trial of civil cases; for criminal cases, it serves as a circuit court in the capital town of each parish.

The Resident Magistrate's Court, which includes the Petty Sessions Court, deals with minor infractions, but may also indict an individual for a serious offense, which would then be adjudicated in a circuit court. Kingston has four resident magistrate courts; St. Andrew, three; and the other parishes, one each. Circuit court judges exercise broad discretion in imposing sentences for serious violations of law.

Constitutional provisions relating to the appointment and tenure of the higher judiciary provide safeguards for their independence from government. Appointments are made by the governor general in consultation with the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, and a judicial service commission. Judges are almost always appointed from within the judicial department of the civil service.

The career civil service is largely responsible for administering governmental policy; as in Britain, it is organized into six categories: administrative, professional, technical, executive, clerical, and manual. The Constitution details the conditions of service, including pensions. Seniority and performance in competitive examinations are taken into consideration for promotion. The civil service is presumed to be nonpartisan in discharging its duties. Separate public commissions, appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister and opposition leader, are responsible for the employees of the career civil service, including the judicial branch, police, local government employees, and public school teachers. The Ministry of Finance also has supervisory authority over personnel management.

Under Seaga's Staff Adjustment Programme, employment in public administration was reduced sharply during the 1984-86 period from an estimated 120,000 employees in 1984 to 79,900 by late 1986. Jamaica's relatively large public sector in 1984 included 36,486 members of the civil service; 16,613 employees in local government services; and about 6,000 members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), the service primarily responsible for internal security. Although the nation inherited a well-trained civil service from the British, by 1980 observers were describing it as heavily overstaffed and highly inefficient.

Before Jamaica achieved internal autonomy, senior civil servants were generally British, enjoyed high prestige, and wielded considerable power. Policies and administrative decisions were decided mostly in Whitehall or Jamaica House (the governor's residence). This situation changed when political authority passed into the hands of popularly elected Jamaicans, with whose nationalist goals civil servants were not necessarily in sympathy. The status and power of the senior civil servants have declined since then. The more capable civil servants were lured away by foreign or private companies offering attractive working conditions and substantially higher wages. Consequently, economic and political development was hindered by shortages of skilled personnel at the higher management levels. Jamaican leaders frequently have bypassed the career civil service and the ministries by creating statutory boards or corporations and appointing their supporters to high positions in these entities. Career diplomats are chosen by competitive examination, and career servants may move between the foreign service and the senior civil service.

At the local level, the nation, a unitary state, is divided into fourteen administrative parishes (see fig.__, Administrative Divisions Jamaica.). The Kingston and St. Andrew Parishes are amalgamated as the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation. A parochial council, which exercises limited self-government, is elected in each parish by universal adult suffrage at times other than those at which general elections are held. The 278 parish councilors were voluntary workers whose allowances only covered attendance at council meetings. Although established to provide the basic amenities for local populations, the parish councils became increasingly dependent on financial assistance from the central government because of insufficient revenues from local taxes, fees, and licenses. Government indifference sometimes has frustrated local initiatives directed toward feasible projects, regardless of the party in power. Because wealthier individuals tended to monopolize parish council positions, relations of this local elite with the poorer masses were based more on authoritarian paternalism than cooperation.

Central government financial assistance has diminished the autonomy of local governments and reinforced habits of subservience acquired in the colonial period. The general trend since 1944 has been toward the centralization of political power away from the parishes to the capital. Stone, who is also Jamaica's leading pollster and a professor of political sociology at (UWI), the University of the West Indies documented this trend in his frequent and respected Stone Polls, sponsored and published, beginning in 1976, by the independent but generally pro-JLP Daily Gleaner newspaper. A decrease in voter turnout for local elections since 1944 was symptomatic of this trend. By the 1980s, politics had become highly centralized, and political issues focused on the national rather than local level. A September 1984 Stone Poll revealed that only 58 percent of registered voters were likely to vote in any forthcoming local government elections. Many voters felt that local government had become useless.

Political Dynamics
Relations with the United States, Britain, and Canada
Relations with Latin American and Caribbean Countries

For more recent information about the government, see Facts about Jamaica.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress