Republic of Barbados?

Barbados may begin a process of transition to a republic. The representative of Queen Elizabeth II, Governor General Sandra Mason, announced such a plan in her throne speech in September. Of course, that means it is the government’s program to abolish the monarchy.

An article about this in The Economist mentioned that such plans do not always go smoothly. It cites the case of Trinidad and Tobago, already a republic since 1976, where the head of state (a president selected by parliament) got to “pick the winner” in a situation (1997) that saw two parties tied for the plurality of seats. The author concludes that “fears of a similar confrontation [between president and sitting prime minister] may have led some Caribbean leaders to reconsider their support for republicanism.”

However, there is no necessary reason why the roles of head of state and head of government need to be separate. Nor must it be left to discretion by the head of state when there is an unclear result of the election. These states could adopt something like the Botswana and South Africa models: The parliamentary majority elects a single individual to serve in both roles. Call the person the “president” or the “prime minister” as you wish. But as long as he or she, and the cabinet collectively, depend on confidence of the majority, it is still a parliamentary democracy (albeit maybe not a Westminster system).

In the most recent election (2018) the Barbados Labour Party won all 30 seats. It was a huge win in votes, too, with 72.8%. (In only two of the single-seat districts did Labour win less than 60%.) Still, it would seem that perhaps a more pressing matter might be not the head of state but electoral reform to avoid total sweeps like this.

29 thoughts on “Republic of Barbados?

  1. There is some good reason to keeping the roles separate. I would cite the value in having someone above the head of government who could put the brakes on an overzealous leader and having someone who can represent the country above politics. I will avoid the temptation to cite the current American president’s actions and threatened actions as an example. It would be a separate question of whether the Crown/President/Grand Poobah needs such broad reserve powers as the Westminster model allows. I don’t have a problem with it per se, but I can see why there is a good case in not letting an otherwise ceremonial official have to choose the head of government when the normal rule doesn’t make it totally clear.

    • It’s a tossup. While there are definite advantages to separating the roles of head of state and government, and I’m quite happy pointing out the problems that Trump exemplifies, the Cape Town model where the parliament directly elects and removes the combined head of state and government has very low transaction costs, and is very easy to explain, compared with other parliamentary variants.

      • I have no issue per se with the Cape Town model. One of the drawbacks, though, is the crumbling leader who still has party support while losing his ability to represent the nation. A head of state directly elected and unelected still poses the problem of a potential failure on his part to differentiate criticism of his politics with criticism of the nation itself. There is some value in apolitical head.

    • The principal advantage of the “Cape Town model”, as you call it (although South Africa has multiple capitals), is the proportional electoral system rather than the peculiar form of the Presidency they’ve come up with.

    • The situation at the 1995 election seems to have been that one party with two seats held the balance of power between two parties with seventeen each. I can’t claim to know a great deal about Trinidad and Tobago politics, but on the face of it this does not appear to be a particularly difficult scenario for a President to handle provided two of the parties can agree to form a government (as opposed to a Tasmania 2010 style situation).

    • The article you link to does not mention the position of Governor at all, so I’m not sure it really fits with the point you were trying to make.

  2. I completely grok “dangers of a small parliament with an even number of seats” and that, even with single-seat first-past-the-post, the small absolute size (population and area) of these Caribbean countries can make it easy for a crossbencher or two to win a plurality and hold the balance of power.
    What I am not grokking here is how “Oh noes, we have a 24-24-2 election result and now the President will have to mediate among parliamentary leaders as they form a coalition or minority government” is somehow worse than “Oh noes, we have a 24-24-2 election result and now the Governor-General will have to mediate among with parliamentary leaders as they form a coalition or minority government”.
    It seems the mirror image of the numerous ageing Australian leftists who seem convinced that “Australia should become a republic so that something like the 1975 Whitlam Dismissal can never happen again”. To be fair, it occurred 19 years before the US Republicans decided to start shutting down the government by blocking the budget because Clinton disrespected Gingrich in offering rides on Air Force One.
    The only salient difference between a figurehead President and a Governor-General is that the latter can usually be recalled at pleasure via a phone call from the Monarch whereas the former usually requires some kind of bipartisan impeachment before their term expires. Anyone who wants to bet the constitutional bank on “Royals are more trustworthy than politicians” should take into account that, from 1960 to 1982, Prince Andrew was second in line to the British throne, and that Juan Carlos was King of Spain from 1975 to 2014.

    • The man who would go on to become a disgraced Duke of York was a war hero in 1982, and five years earlier he was still a schoolboy, so that’s perhaps not the fairest example. Had some accident happened decades ago to make him first in line to the throne, he may well not have turned into the monster he has ended up as.
      I take your point about Juan Carlos, though – his attempts at accumulating personal wealth for himself and his family show that he never had any confidence in the survival of the institution of the Spanish Crown beyond his own lifetime.

      There’s really no justifiable reason for the chamber from which a government must derive confidence to have an even number of seats. A 15-15 tie would be an even worse result than 14-14-2 for any arbiter, be they a monarch, viceroy, President, Chief Justice or (Dutch-style) ‘informateur’.

    • Yes, even speaking as someone who would vote to keep the monarchy in Australia, the differences between an indirectly elected President and a Governor-General don’t seem obvious. If anything, given that a Governor-General is (generally) appointed unilaterally by a Prime Minister, whereas a President is elected by Parliament and often requires a supermajority, all else equal you might expect Presidents to be slightly more even-handed in handling potential constitutional disputes.

      • The undeniable fact that Andrew and Juan Carlos did good work in 1981-82 and then went downhill is a good argument for “quamdiu se bene gesserint”, limited terms, and retirement ages as non-negotiable constitutional principles.
        I’m a republican by temperament, but am even more opposed to (literal) life terms than to hereditary (ceremonial) positions.
        Dutch Queens who abdicate at 70 or 80 and retire are de facto more republican, in my view, than Ruth Bader Ginsberg fighting to hold her Supreme Court seat until she dies.

      • I know that’s one of the modern connotations, but republic does not necessarily mean ‘with fixed/limited terms’ (e.g. Republic of Venice), any more than monarchy necessarily means ‘hereditary’ (e.g. Ancient Rome, Malaysia, Vatican, Kuwait)

      • Austria, Finland, Iceland, Ireland and Portugal suggest elected presidents are just as competent at presiding over government formation as appointed presidents. The full democracy category of the Democracy Index is tiny, at 22. Nevertheless if we count non-presidential republics we find elected presidents outnumber their appointed colleagues 6/2.

      • There’s a very good point above about the tradition of abdication in the Low Countries, which is absent from Westminster and Scandinavian systems (where the only abdication in the past 300 years was and is considered an existential crisis). It’s also worth noting that in the BeNeLux nations, the monarch is one step removed from resolving post-election disputes as they appoint a lead negotiator who then tries to find the most suitable MP to form a government.

        When it comes to non-presidential republics that don’t elect their head of state directly, Germany and Italy stand out as two pretty huge and significant exceptions. That’s probably partly down to their large populations, but also due to their particular experiences with ‘strong leaders’ in the 1930s and early 1940s.

      • Margrethe II of Denmark probably retains more power than any other constitutional monarch. She conducts government formation directly. She hears the parties (all at a single meeting) and then nominates a party leader to form a government. Denmark’s average government formation takes 4 days.

        The elaborate processions of scouts, informateurs and formateurs in the Low Counties may maintain royal neutrality but they appear to do very little for speedy government formation.

      • I’ll concede that if the [Acting] Head of State is in power for a long time (decades), the swings and roundabouts of politics mean the parties they favour (or are seen to favour) will average out. So ERII commissioned a Labour minority government in 1974 but then a Tory-Liberal coalition in 2010. Whereas Lord Byng, Sir Phillip Game, Sir John Kerr or Cearbhall O Dalaigh are known to history as having clashed with one side of politics only. Since Governors-General serve only five or at most seven years in the role, this is not a feature of monarchies vs republics per se but of resident monarchs vs viceroys proper and presidents acting vice regem.

      • Definitions of “republicanism” diverge, of course, but I propose for this present assembly’s consideration that it involves some inchoate understanding that public officers do not hold their positions by personal right. This rules out hereditary succession or other personal inheritance (eg, Haitian presidents or US Supreme Court justices naming their own successors), and at the other extreme I would say it also rules out life terms, whether literally (an office like the Papacy who is elected by the Cardinals but cannot be deposed by them against his will) or de facto (theoretically removable by an impeachment process that will never be used because it requires an unattainable bipartisan super-majority in the legislature).
        What matters is how all the parts of the system fit together. No one worries that jurors are selected by lot, because they decide a single trial and then disperse; but choosing a King, or a single Presidential Elector, by lot (as semi-satirically canvassed by GK Chesterton and Isaac Asimov respectively) would be of more concern. Requiring a bipartisan super-majority for mid-term removal is less worrying for an official with a definite retirement date (a president who must vacate on 3 January every leap year, a High Court justice who must step down on their 70th birthday) than for one who otherwise serves until they die or agree that they are past their best days.
        Weight must also be given to whether a custom is so strong it is de facto law (“Dutch monarchs abdicate in their mid-70s”) and whether a legal rule is de facto a dead letter (“Congress will be impeach and remove any US Supreme Court judges who bend the true meaning of the Constitution to serve partisan goals, because that is a ‘high crime'” – have fun identifying your own culprits, folks! (-;)

      • [* Another example of “how all the parts fit together”… For a constitution to specify “Electoral districts for the State Legislature shall be as proclaimed by the Governor, after hearing the report of an independent commission” would be tolerable if the Governor is directly elected by Statewide majority vote. Indeed, it could have the advantage of allowing a Statewide vote majority of voters to “break through” and override attempts by legislators to retain a majority of seats by gerrymandering… a sort of MMP in slow-motion, you could say. But of course this would be unacceptable if the Governor were chosen by those same legislators. In that case, giving the final say to the independent commission would be a less-bad alternative].

      • The Republic of Venice was “republican”, relative to the baseline of other hereditary aristocratic states of the era, because the Doge was elected. That the Doge was elected for life was not what made it republican. That was a bug, not a feature. It was slightly less republican for that reason, but it was still republican on balance. Ditto those Swiss cantons that were ruled by bishops, at least while they were Catholic and subject to mandatory celibacy, which in principle rules out de jure hereditary succession.
        [Cue for a quip here about the Borgias. ASSIGNED TO: Alan.]
        If Alexander Hamilton had gotten his way and bequeathed the US with a President and Senators elected for life, it would still be a “republic”, and it would arguably be more “republican” than Bhutan, but it would be less “republican” than a United States whose President and Senators were elected for 15-year terms, which in turn would be less “republican” than the United States we actually ended up with.
        PS: Maybe it’s because “for life” is so variable… it can mean “three-quarters of a century” if you’re Louis XIV of France, or 33 days if you’re John Paul I. Even if the reign is ended by abdication rather than death, this can be less than a normal presidential term (eg, Alfonso II, King of Naples, succeeded 1494, abdicated one year later) or only slightly over it (Pope Benedict, just shy of 8 years).

  3. I admire Queen Elizabeth II personally for her sheer diligence (who doesn’t?), but her fixed idea that she would somehow be betraying her coronation oath to her subjects if she stepped down after 70+ years seems very odd. It is the height of cruelty that a 93-year-old woman believes she cannot retire from her job but must work until she dies.
    I have heard it said that she was determined never to be like her feckless uncle. Ironically, Edward VIII abdicating was one of the few good decisions he ever made, albeit he had to be dragged to that point kicking and screaming. Others say HM has decided Charles is not fit for purpose and is holding on to reduce the amount of time he will reign before William succeeds. But isn’t the rationale of monarch supposed to be continuity – that even if one monarch vacates, their replacement is the next closest person by genes and upbringing (“the king is dead, long live the king”)? It’s not supposed to be like RBG worrying that a Republican would replace her with a right-winger.
    Hard to disagree with Christopher Hitchens’ observation that while HM has done very well by following her Ministers’ advice, the only two decisions that we know for certain were hers personally – that Margaret should not marry Peter Townshend, and that Charles should marry Diana – both turned out disastrously for the women concerned.

    • Hitchens was wrong on this as on most issues. The Townshend decision was advised by Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden who insisted the only alternative was booting Margaret from the line of succession by Act of Parliament. He’s not completely wrong about the Diana decision.

      What’s weird about that is that HM picked her own somewhat unconventional husband over ferocious opposition from her mother and most courtiers. She then dumped her son into a loveless arranged marriage. That marriage could not have been better designed to inflict maximum cruelty on both parties.

      The idea that HM thinks Charles unsuitable is about as likely as that she will retire to Nimbin, take up pot smoking, and have a large image of Dennis Skinner MP tattooed on her rear.

      • Will defer, Alan, to your knowledge re: Townshend although “The Crown” by Julian Fellowes seems to frame as a decision Elizabeth wrestled with herself. (Perhaps that is the imperatives of TV drama).
        The theory that HM has despaired over Charles, I have heard from three separate people who are all very ardent monarchists. One expressed his view that the Prince of Wales is a, quote, “moron” before proceeding to explain why executive members of the Australian Republic Movement could be prosecuted under the law of sedition. He was a university professor, now deceased.

      • Everything being said about Charles is identical with everything that was said about Edward VII before he became king. Within minutes of Victoria’s death the whole panoply of kingship descended on Edward and the mistresses were largely forgotten. Charles has only ever had one and he’s now married to her.

        Edward’s grandson was widely expected to be a terrific king and turned out a pro-Nazi disaster. George VI was supposed to be intellectually incapable because of his stutter (hello, Trump campaign) and was wildly successful. Monarchy is weird and your deceased friend would have done well to remember that.

  4. Will the President of Barbados be directly elected or elected by parliament? Trinidad and Tobago elects the President as an electoral college of the House of Representatives and Senate.

  5. Pingback: Thinking about the US method of presidential selection | Fruits and Votes

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