Government and Politics

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

The Governmental System

Under the Constitution adopted at independence on November 3, 1978, the president is head of state and is appointed by the prime minister following consultation with the leader of the opposition. Executive authority is vested in the president, but in the exercise of most of his executive functions the president is required to "act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or a Minister acting under the general authority of Cabinet." The prime minister is the head of government and in that capacity is the chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers. Ministers are chosen by the prime minister from a group composed of the elected members of the country's unicameral parliament and senators appointed by the prime minister.

The House of Assembly is composed of twenty-one of elected representatives and nine senators, five appointed by the prime minister and four appointed by the opposition leader, bringing the total membership of the House to thirty. Whatever member commands the support of the majority of the elected members in the House of Assembly is named prime minister. The person commanding the majority of the rest of the House becomes opposition leader. (The pre-independence legislature was also known as the House of Assembly.)

The movement of the ceremonial mace to the lower position on its stand in the House chamber indicates that the House is sitting in committee, usually to discuss details of a bill before returning to a plenary session for a vote. Decisions are by simple majority vote, except on selected matters, such as constitutional amendments and the declaration of a state of emergency, when a two-thirds majority is required.

The Constitution allows for any citizen of the country, eighteen years of age and over, who is literate and not bankrupt, to organize and take part in political activity. The Constitution does not recognize political parties nor is their formation required for participating in elections. Candidates may, therefore, stand for election either associated with a party or as independents.

Servicing this government structure is a civil service of about 2,500 persons. In the past, jobs in the service were much sought after because of the employment security and status that they offered. With the expansion of the commercial private sector and nongovernmental organizations since the early 1970s, more attractive conditions of work, including salaries, training, and travel, have encouraged a shift of top- and middle-level professionals away from the public sector. In the late 1980s, major adjustments in the size and structure of the public service were anticipated as part of the government's program of structural adjustment. These changes were expected to result in a streamlined, performance-oriented service in which productivity and merit, not longevity of service, would be rewarded.

Dominica has a multi-level judicial system commencing with the Lower Court, or Magistrate's Court, which is the first level of recourse for violators of the country's laws. The government-employed magistrate makes decisions at this level without the benefit of a jury. At the next level, a judge, assisted by a jury, presides over civil and criminal cases. Jurors are selected from the list of registered voters and, unless excused by the court, are obliged to serve when called. Appeals may be made to the Eastern Caribbean States Supreme Court, which consists of a Court of Appeal and a High Court. A panel of judges is appointed to hear appeals, and these sittings take place on the island. The court of last resort for Dominicans is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, where decisions of the Supreme Court may be reviewed for final ruling.

The office of the Director of Public Prosecution is a government department located in the Ministry of Legal Affairs; it is headed by the attorney general. The lawyers in this office conduct the prosecution of cases on behalf of the state. There are no legal aid organizations, and citizens are expected to utilize lawyers in private practice as defense attorneys.

Political Dynamics

The 1961 election victory of the DLP under the leadership of Leblanc ushered in a period in Dominica's history when workers and farmers united in one political movement. This alliance of town and country challenged the descendants of landowners and businessmen residing in the capital and began the vigorous involvement in politics of large numbers of poor, uneducated persons.

At the community level, those who had exercised authority through control of land, shops, credit, and transportation and were associated with the defeated Dominica United People's Party were challenged by small farmers and laborers. At the national level, it was made abundantly clear that the "little people" had acquired political power guaranteed by universal adult suffrage and the presence of a political institution (the DLP) through which to act. Wealth, which was traditionally viewed as coming from banks, business houses, and estates, was now seen as emanating from the labor of thousands of small banana farmers, the main engine of growth in the 1960s.

In 1968 the Leblanc government responded to incipient signs of social unrest by attempting to pass a bill in the House of Assembly that would curb press freedoms. With this act, the moral imperative of the new social order was badly shaken. Promulgation of this unpopular bill was followed soon after by signs that the economic policies of the government were floundering. The combined pressures of high unemployment among the island's youth and increasingly aggressive activity by trade unions and opposition political parties led to the resignation of Leblanc as premier and DLP leader and his replacement by Patrick John.

Fresh from his first election victory in 1975, John resorted to a high-handed use of the security forces, and he also proposed punitive legislation aimed again at curbing press freedoms. Following a successful strike by the public service union in 1977 for increased wages, John attempted to solve the increasing economic problems by signing investment deals with persons later discovered to have very questionable business records. One such deal with an American businessman involved the creation of a freetrade zone comprising about one-quarter of the island's most productive agricultural land. The deal was scuttled after street demonstrations throughout the island in 1978.

In that same year, the backbone of the economy, the banana industry, was hit by a severe disease that wiped out 30 percent of the cultivated acreage. An inquiry laid the blame on poor management, industry officials known to have very strong ties with the government, and the DLP. This led to vigorous demonstrations against the government, inspired this time by the farmers who traditionally had comprised the bulk of the party's supporters. This threat to the power base of the party apparently pushed the John administration to take drastic measures. Bills designed to muzzle trade unions and the press were introduced in the House early in 1979.

Following weeks of public meetings all over the island by opposition forces, some 10,000 demonstrators, including rural and urban dwellers, gathered outside the House on May 29, 1979, the day on which the bills were due to be debated and passed. What began as a peaceful demonstration was soon thrown into tragic confusion by the arrival of Defence Force personnel, who in the ensuing shooting killed one youth and injured several other persons. This set the stage for Dominica's first recorded removal of an elected government from office by other than electoral means.

The country was shut down by an alliance of farmers, workers, private businesses, opposition political parties, and churches, grouped under the banner of the Committee for National Salvation. This situation prevailed for twenty-eight days until the resignation of members of government one by one eroded the constitutional majority required for the prime minister to stay in office. On June 21, a new president and prime minister were sworn into office, and an interim government was constituted from among the representatives of the organizations that had led the uprising.

The interim government, although constitutional, was seen by the major opposition party, the Dominican Freedom Party (DFP), as transitional. Within weeks of the inauguration of the government, the DFP was calling for general elections. Many contenders emerged in the long and bitter electoral campaign that ensued. They included two factions of the DLP, the DFP, the Dominican Liberation Movement Alliance (a leftwing party led by young activists and academics), and several independent candidates. In July 1980, the DFP, polling 52 percent of the votes, won 17 of the 21 parliamentary seats. DFP leader Mary Eugenia Charles became the Caribbean's first woman prime minister. The party soon began to make in-roads into the traditional rural and working-class base of the DLP. This was accomplished in part by the active mobilization of youth into the party in the late 1970s and the formation of the Young Freedom Movement, which by the late 1980s was an aggressive, well-organized, and evidently well-funded organ of the party.

The DFP also benefitted from its control over all electronic media and favorable support from the only newspaper published in the country, the weekly New Chronicle. Control over the radio station was particularly crucial because the station reached practically the entire population. Although it had criticized the John government for exercising control over a publicly-owned medium such as the radio, the DFP exercised much the same type of control. The party, for example, strictly controlled the news and granted the political opposition only limited access to the radio.

The July 1985 parliamentary election was the first to take place in Dominica since the United States military intervention in Grenada (see Current Strategic Considerations, ch. 7). OECS chairwoman, Charles, who had emerged as one of the most visible defenders of the intervention, portrayed the election as a choice between democracy and communism (see Foreign Relations, this section). The prime minister charged that the DLP had become communist and accused opposition leaders of receiving funds from Cuba, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and Libya. In an effort to create a new image, the DLP combined with the United Dominica Labour Party to form the Labour Party of Dominica (LPD). Nonetheless, the DFP captured 59 percent of the vote and fifteen of the twenty-one elected House seats.

Despite a slightly reduced majority, DFP support remained strong. Two years after the election, the LPD still suffered from the effects of bitter leadership squabbles and a loss of credibility following charges of mismanagement of public funds brought against its leaders, particularly John, who was serving a jail sentence. John was convicted of having been part of a plot to attempt an armed overthrow of the Charles administration in 1981. The plot involved elements of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi groups, American and Canadian mercenaries, and underworld elements from the United States. In December of that same year, a second coup was attempted, this time aimed at releasing John, who was then still in prison for his alleged part in the first coup attempt. After being granted a new trial, John was again convicted in October 1985 and sentenced to twelve years in prison.

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

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress