Government and Politics

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

The Governmental System

St. Kitts and Nevis is a federal state that adheres to the forms of the British Westminster-style parliamentary system of government. The uniqueness of its 1983 Constitution derives from the provisions for the autonomy of the island of Nevis with regard to certain "specified matters" and the establishment of the separate Nevis Island Assembly (legislature) to address these local concerns.

As a constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth of Nations (see Appendix B), St. Kitts and Nevis recognizes Queen Elizabeth II or her successor as the titular head of government. The British monarch is represented by a governor general, who resides in Basseterre. Although legally responsible for the government of both islands, the governor general appoints a deputy to represent him or her on Nevis. As the highest executive authority on the islands, the governor general appoints the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, other ministers of the government, the leader of the opposition in Parliament, and members of the Public Service Commission and Police Service Commission. He may prorogue or dissolve Parliament at any time. In the judicial sphere, he has the power of pardon, "respite" (stay of execution of sentence), and remittance of all or part of the sentence of convicted criminals. As in most Commonwealth countries, however, the apparently sweeping nature of the governor general's powers is restricted by the requirement that the governor general act only in accordance with the advice of the prime minister. In St. Kitts and Nevis, the governor general is permitted to act without consultation only when the prime minister cannot be contacted because of absence or illness.

The federal government of St. Kitts and Nevis is directed by a unicameral parliament known as the National Assembly, established by the 1983 Constitution to replace the House of Assembly. After the 1984 elections, the assembly was composed of eleven elected members, or representatives, and three appointed members, or senators. Two of the senators are appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister. The other is named on the advice of the leader of the opposition. Both representatives and senators serve five-year terms.

The focus of effective power in the federal government is the Cabinet of Ministers, which consists of the prime minister and other ministers drawn from the membership of the assembly (either representatives or senators). The cabinet determines the business and policies of government. According to the Constitution, the cabinet is "collectively responsible to the National Assembly," but because its members are drawn from that body, there is little likelihood of serious disagreement between the two.

Electoral districts, or constituencies, are delimited by the Constituencies Boundaries Commission. A minimum of eight constituencies on St. Kitts and three on Nevis is mandated by the Constitution. Boundaries are not established solely on the basis of population; the commission is charged to consider other factors, such as population density, fair representation for rural areas, communications differences, geographical features, and existing administrative boundaries.

The island of Nevis elects representatives both to the National Assembly and to its own Nevis Island Assembly, a separate eightmember body (five elected, three appointed) charged with regulating local affairs. The Nevis Island Assembly is subordinate to the National Assembly only with regard to external affairs and defense and in cases where similar but not identical legislation is passed by both bodies. The guidelines for legislative autonomy in Nevis are contained in the "specified matters" --areas of local administration for which the Nevisian legislature may amend or revoke provisions passed by the National Assembly. There are twenty-three specified matters, including agricultural regulations, the borrowing of monies or procurement of grants for use on Nevis, water conservation and supply, Nevisian economic planning and development, housing, utilities, and roads and highways. These restrictions on Kittitian control over internal Nevisian concerns appear to have been one of the major concessions (along with a local legislature and the right of secession) made by the PAM to the NRP in order to maintain the two-island union after independence.

Nevisian secession from the federation requires a two-thirds vote in the Nevis Island Assembly and the approval of two-thirds of the voters in a referendum. St. Kitts has no corresponding right of secession, a reminder of the separatist roots of the NRP and the desire of the smaller island to protect itself from possible exploitation by its larger neighbor.

The government of Nevis closely parallels the structure of the federal government and has a premier analogous to the prime minister, an assembly incorporating both elected and appointed members, and a body functioning as a local cabinet, the Nevis Island Administration, which includes the premier plus two or more members of the Nevis Island Assembly. Disputes between the Nevis Island Administration and the federal government must be decided by the High Court.

The High Court, which sits in Basseterre, is the final court of appeal on the islands. Appeals beyond the High Court are heard by the Court of Appeal of the Eastern Caribbean States Supreme Court. Appeals beyond that level may be taken to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, but only if they conform to certain prescribed conditions, for example, if they are issues that require constitutional interpretation or are decisions of "great general or public importance." Local magistrate's courts provide summary jurisdiction.

Political Dynamics

Politics in St. Kitts and Nevis in the 1980s was marked by a vituperative relationship between the PAM and its opposition, the Labour Party. This state of affairs derived from a history of bitter contention between the two St. Kitts-based parties and from Labour's apparent inability to adjust to the role of opposition after more than thirty years in power.

The PAM arose as an expression of middle-class opposition to the political dominance of the Labour Party. According to most observers, the reaction of the Labour government to this challenge was not a positive one. The PAM's relatively strong showing in 1966, the first year it participated in elections, apparently alerted the Labourites to the potential strength of the opposition movement. The government's initial reaction to this threat was to declare a state of emergency in June 1967, under which twenty-two PAM members were arrested. Efforts to prosecute the detainees were abandoned by the government after the first two defendants were acquitted. Both the founder of the PAM, William Herbert, and party leader Simmonds, among others, gave accounts of harassment, imprisonment, mistreatment, and confiscation of property at the hands of the Labour government.

For its part, the PAM also showed that it could play political hardball after it came to power in coalition with the NRP in 1980. In 1981 the government ended the practice of "check-off" deduction of dues from the paychecks of members of the St. Kitts and Nevis Trades and Labour Union (SKNTLU), considerably complicating efforts by the Labour Party's union arm to raise revenues. PAM-associated unions also challenged the SKNTLU for membership, particularly among dock workers. In a move that was eventually blocked in the courts, the government attempted to shut down the headquarters of the SKNTLU (the so-called Masses House) by foreclosure through the National Bank. Ironically, this action replicated a similar effort by the Labour government in 1969, when the PAM's headquarters was purchased by the government and members were turned away by armed Defence Force personnel. Some observers felt that the PAM/NRP government took matters a step too far when it arrested Labour leader Moore in April 1987 for "utter[ing] seditious words." Moore was quickly released on bond to the acclaim of a group of supporters.

After its 1980 defeat, the Labour Party appeared to apply more of its energies to criticism of the policies and actions of the PAM/NRP government than to the formulation of a coherent alternative platform. The party's 1984 manifesto called for wage increases, a 50-percent reduction in electricity rates, greater job security for workers, and the establishment of a separate government for St. Kitts comparable to that enjoyed by Nevis. This last issue echoed Labour's 1983 campaign against the independence Constitution drawn up by the PAM/NRP, a campaign that proved unsuccessful, as judged by the results of the 1984 elections. Labour leaders also leveled charges of widespread corruption among government ministers, a fairly common theme in West Indian politics. Nonetheless, these negative tactics were not coupled with any productive efforts to expand support among the sectors of the electorate where the Labour Party had proved weakest, namely, youth and voters on Nevis. A continued decline in SKNTLU membership also hampered the party's organizational efforts.

The acrimonious relations between the PAM and the Labour Party since 1980 can perhaps be best illustrated by a brief cataloging of the allegations each has hurled against the other through their respective party organs. Labour has charged the PAM with favoring the wealthy over the workers; with responsibility for increases in mental illness, drug abuse, and drug trafficking; with "undermin[ing] black self-image"; with association with international criminals; and with plans for a mass murder of Kittitians in the style of the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana, massacre. For its part, the PAM has accused the Labourites of burning sugarcane fields; of physically assaulting PAM candidates and threatening others, including the prime minister; and of employing "communist tactics" in an effort to destabilize the country and establish a one-party state.

Despite the results of the 1984 elections, the Labour Party remained a political force on St. Kitts, although in the opinion of most observers its prospects for a return to power in the 1989 election were not promising. A reassumption of power by Labour under its platform of the mid-1980s would pose a serious dilemma for the two-island federation, as it would almost certainly precipitate the secession of Nevis.

The party that would lead such a movement, the NRP, continued to dominate political life on Nevis in the late 1980s. Organized as a secessionist movement, the NRP had a poorly defined political ideology. As a coalition partner with the PAM since 1980, however, it supported the moderate policies of Simmonds and his advisers. After the 1984 elections, the NRP technically no longer held the balance of power in the National Assembly, since the PAM took six of the eleven seats contested. There were no public indications of tension between the two parties, however, and the coalition appeared secure as it looked toward another electoral test in 1989.

For more information about the government, see Facts about Saint Kitts and Nevis.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress