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Caribbean Islands

Government and Politics

The Governmental System

In the late 1980s, the Bahamas had a democratic system based on the British Westminster parliamentary model of government. The 1973 Constitution proclaims the Bahamas a sovereign democratic state; sets requirements for citizenship; guarantees fundamental human rights; establishes the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; and creates three civil service commissions: the Public Service Commission, the Judicial and Legal Commission, and the Police Service Commission. Although an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations since 1973, the Bahamas retains the British monarch as its chief of state, represented in the Bahamas by an appointed governor general (see Appendix B).

Chapter III (Articles 15-28) of the Constitution details the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in the Bahamas, including the right to life, liberty, security, and protection of the law; freedom of conscience, expression, assembly, and association; and protection of the privacy of the home and other property from deprivation without compensation. Moreover, the Constitution provides for protection of these rights and freedoms without discrimination based on race, national origin, political opinion, color, creed, or sex. These provisions were not just theoretical considerations but were actually carried out in practice, according to the Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1986.

Constitutional amendments require a combination of an act of Parliament and popular referendum. Entrenched constitutional provisions, such as those relating to the establishment of the civil service or the qualifications for members of Parliament, require a two-thirds majority in both houses and passage by a popular referendum. Specially entrenched provisions, such as those relating to citizenship, fundamental rights, and the establishment and powers of Parliament, the cabinet, and the judiciary, require a three-fourths majority in both houses and passage by referendum.

Parliament consists of a bicameral legislature made up of the sixteen-member Senate and the forty-nine-member House of Assembly. Parliament also technically includes the British monarch represented by the governor general, but that individual serves no real function in the daily parliamentary process. Under the Constitution, Parliament may make laws for the peace and good government of the Bahamas. Laws are generally enacted by Parliament in the following manner. A bill is introduced in the House of Assembly, read three times, debated, and, if passed, becomes an act. The act is read three times in the Senate and then sent to the governor general. The governor general signs the act, which upon being published in the official journal of the government becomes a law. Bills may officially be introduced in either house of Parliament, except for money bills, which may only be introduced in the House of Assembly, and may be passed with or without amendment, subject to the agreement of both houses.

The House of Assembly elects one member from each of fortythree constituencies or single-member districts for terms not to exceed five years. The House of Assembly performs all major legislative functions. The leader of the majority party in the House is appointed prime minister by the governor general, and the leader of the major opposition party is designated as leader of the opposition. The House of Assembly elects a speaker and a deputy speaker to preside over the House.

The number of constituencies is established in Article 68 of the Constitution, but Article 70 mandates a procedural review of these constituencies at least every five years. The Constituencies Commission reviews the number and boundaries of the constituencies, taking into account the number of voters, the needs of sparsely populated areas, and the ability of elected members to maintain contact with voters from a wide geographic area. The Constituencies Commission consists of the speaker of the House of Assembly, a justice of the Supreme Court, and three members of the House of Assembly--two from the majority party and one from the opposition. The 1973 Constitution first established thirty-eight constituencies. That number was increased to forty-three in time for the 1982 elections and to forty-nine for the 1987 elections.

The Senate is appointed by the governor general. Nine members are chosen on the advice of the prime minister, four on the recommendation of the leader of the opposition, and the remaining three on the advice of the prime minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition. The Senate has limited functions in the parliamentary process. It elects a president and a vice president to preside over its proceedings.

The executive authority of government officially rests with the British monarch, represented by the governor general. The general direction and control of government, however, are vested in a cabinet, led by the prime minister, who serves as the chief executive of the government. The cabinet also consists of at least eight other ministers, including the attorney general, who are drawn from the membership of Parliament. In late 1987, the cabinet consisted of the Office of the Attorney General and the heads of eleven ministries: agriculture, trade, and industry; education; employment and immigration; finance; foreign affairs; health; housing and national insurance; tourism; transport and local government; works and utilities; and youth, sports, and community affairs. The minister of finance must be a member of the House of Assembly. If the attorney general is appointed from the Senate, no more than two other ministers may be drawn from the ranks of the Senate; if the attorney general is from the House of Assembly, however, three ministers may be chosen from the Senate. A number of parliamentary secretaries are also appointed from the membership of Parliament to assist the ministers. Permanent secretaries also serve in the ministries; they are appointed by the Public Service Commission to these highest civil service positions. Institutionally, the cabinet collectively is responsible to Parliament. The prime minister is responsible for keeping the governor general informed of the general conduct of the government.

The judiciary of the Bahamas is independent of executive control. It consists of the Court of Appeal at the highest level, followed by the Supreme Court, magistrate is courts, and Family Islands commissioners, who often act as magistrates. The Court of Appeal consists of a president and two other justices. If needed, a final appeal may be made to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. Bahamian law is based on English common law, but a large body of Bahamian statute law also exists.

Local government in the Family Islands falls administratively under the Department of Local Government of the cabinet's Ministry of Transport and Local Government. The Family Islands are divided into nineteen districts administered by twenty-three commissioners appointed by the government and supervised from Nassau. Several of the larger islands with relatively greater populations are split up into several districts (see table 9, Appendix A). In addition to the commissioners, elected House of Assembly members often deal with local matters, thereby filling the void created by the absence of an elected local government.

Data as of November 1987


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