Jamaicans don’t have a lot to celebrate as they mark their golden anniversary of independence this year. Their unemployment rate is almost twice that of the Caribbean region as a whole; their government is still reeling from a drug kingpin scandal that helped oust the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) from power last month; and many are still bummed out by last summer’s shocking false-start disqualification from the world championship’s 100-meter dash by their national hero, the god-like Olympic gold-medal sprinter Usain Bolt.
So for many Jamaicans it was a morale booster when new Prime Minster Portia Simpson Miller announced in her inaugural address on Jan. 6 that she would “initiate the process of detachment” from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II this year. Although Jamaica won its independence from British colonial rule in 1962, the Queen has remained the island’s head of state. Making Jamaica a republic would sever that relationship. “I love the Queen,” Simpson Miller declared. “She’s a beautiful lady…a wise lady and a wonderful lady. But I think time come.”
Jamaica would hardly be first among the numerous former British colonies in the Caribbean to ditch Her Majesty. Trinidad & Tobago, which also won its independence in 1962, became a republic as early as 1976. Still, “the process of detachment” could be an important democratic exercise, not just for Jamaica but the rest of the region, provided Simpson Miller and the island’s political class show some leadership. Jamaica’s real governmental dysfunction doesn’t lie on the throne of England – it resides in the office of Prime Minister and the inordinate executive powers the position holds. Jamaica needs to attach other constitutional changes, like popular election of Senators, to the largely symbolic break with the monarchy. In the process, that reform spirit could spread to neighbors like Trinidad, where violent crime currently outstrips even that of Jamaica.
The main benefit of replacing the Queen and her Governor-General in Jamaica with an elected – but largely figurehead – Jamaican President is “psychological,” says Brian Meeks, a professor of social and political change at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. “The Queen’s our head of state, but we still need a visa to visit her,” Meeks notes, “and that’s one of the many underlying incongruities pushing us toward a republic. Britain also occupies a different place in the mind for countries like Jamaica, where slavery was part of colonialism, than it does for countries like Canada or Australia,” where the Queen is also still head of state. (If it becomes a republic, Jamaica would likely remain a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, a global alliance of Britain and its former colonies.)
But a larger and more practical sign of Jamaica’s political maturity, analysts like Meeks suggest, would be “to undercut the near-monarchical powers of the Prime Minister.” Jamaica’s democracy suffers from an acute lack of checks and balances in that regard, and one of the biggest problems is that while the parliament’s lower House of Representatives is elected, the Senate’s 21 members are appointed – 13 by the PM and eight by the opposition leader. The result is an upper, advisory chamber that is largely the PM’s lapdog. That, say critics, was disturbingly apparent during the recent scandal, when former PM Bruce Golding and his government faced accusations that for months they refused to arrest and extradite Jamaican drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke to the U.S. because of Coke’s long and close relationship with Golding’s center-right JLP.
Though he denied the accusations and hasn’t been formally charged with criminal wrongdoing, Golding resigned last fall and his party was trounced in December elections by Simpson Miller’s liberal People’s National Party (PNP). Simpson Miller is now expected to make a formal announcement of a referendum on republicanism when Jamaica celebrates independence in August. The question will be whether she pushes for the more meaningful changes as well. One obstacle, Meeks points out, could be cost: Jamaica’s economic crisis might preclude an expensive plebiscite, especially one that lays out complex constitutional questions like direct election of Senators.
Still, a republican referendum would offer the best chance to galvanize the island in favor of separation-of-powers reforms that actually matter. Were that to happen in Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, it might make government there a little more beautiful, wise and wonderful.