Our political system of democracy is getting stale
Editor: Another year and another election have passed and it appears that the more things change, the more they stay the same. We have a new government, the same ULP government, same leader. We have a new opposition, the same NDP opposition, same leader. The NDP lost one seat to the ULP but held on to the more or less same constituency, mainly Kingstown and the Grenadines. The Green party was lost in the shuffle – yet again. Politics goes on in much the same way as it did last year, except that if what I heard has any truth to it, voter turn-out was only about 60 percent. That means that 40 percent of the electorate was not interested in the election and may have lost interest in politics. This should be a wakeup call to all politicians.
In the British Caribbean generally, our system of democracy leads to the production of political dynasties. Dynasties are not necessarily bad however; they tend to strangulate political initiative. The development of these dynasties stem from many sources. Historically, the electorate has been divided in a dual tribal manner between two main political parties with little hope for third- or fourth-party choices. This tribal division stemming largely from a principle of divide and rule shows no signs of abating and the “them” and “us” division that is largely based on a strong dislike and resentment for those who support an opposing political party or view, affords no platform for meaningful, productive debate.
The current system does not result in much turn over of the political players and offers very few avenues for the general electorate to participate in politics other than to be engaged for a few weeks every five years and to vote on election day. Perhaps that was a contributory factor leading to 40% of our electorate refusing to vote last November. Perhaps voters want more day-to-day involvement in the political workings of the nation. Apart from voting at the polls the electorate appears to have very little say in how the national political apparatus is run. The leader of the parties chooses the candidates and so the electorate has little choice in who will represent them because politics has become so tribal that you vote for the candidate because of the party. It may not be enough to just engage the electorate for a few weeks every five years then forget them.
Why is it that in a Nation like St. Vincent and the Grenadines with a population of over 100,000 there are only a few dozen individuals controlling the political life of the people? Why is it that civil servants must retire at 55 years of age but there is no upper age limit to the life of politicians? Why is it that a single politician can remain in parliament for several decades whether in opposition or on the government benches? These are the main causes of the development of political dynasties, a system that creates career politicians and that encourages politicians to have a main interest of remaining in office at all costs. That becomes their vested interest when the vested interest should be national development. We need to set a retirement age for politicians and we need to set the number of terms that any one politician can serve in parliament. This will allow for new people to enter the political arena and serve and it will also diminish the development of political dynasties both along individual and party lines. You may well ask “what do we do with retiring politician when their terms have ended or when they hit the retirement age”? We can consider forming an unofficial College of Retired Politicians and use them as a means to source Boards and Commissions; to act as foreign dignitaries; to be mentors to groups such as a young ULP or NDP; to review and advise on proposed legislation; and other suck tasks that may be deemed necessary. They could even be a source from which Senators may be selected.
Politicians must be willing to share power. There must be the creation of a system of local government. In SVG this may best be established along the constituency lines where we will have 15 local governments. Representatives could be elected at the same time that general elections are held. The constituency councils could become advisory bodies to the government and they must be given authority and budgets to control local works such as road maintenance, maintenance of public buildings, sport complexes and other such matters deemed adequate and necessary. These constituency councils could become springboards for people to become future parliamentarians.
We need a new system of choosing candidates for parliament. It should not be left to just party leaders to choose. Rather each constituency should be allowed to vote for a prospective candidate from a slate. Furthermore, taking a page from the USA we could have primary elections during which people could come forth and challenge incumbents and where there may be multiple candidates there could be a run-off between the top two vote earners. Incumbents should not feel slighted because if they are serving the people well, they should easily win their primaries.
We need to consider some form of proportional representation. For decades the electors of Kingstown and the Grenadines have had no representation at the government table. In many elections the party that wins the most seats and forms the government often does not win the popular vote. Proportional representation will even out these inequities and lessen the “them” and “us” divide in the nation. The Senate should be revamped after every election so that we do not end up with “professional” members of the Senate for years on end.
In short, our political system of Democracy is getting stale and may be failing. We can no longer plod from election to election in the same manner that we have done since the 1950’s. We must react to the fact that 40% of the electorate appears to be disinterested. It does not necessarily mean that our politicians are bad, rather it may be a sign that we need new ideas, new blood and constant refreshment of our political leadership in order for our Democracy and its politics to stay relevant and for our political ideas to grow and flourish. Vincentians, including our political leaders do have choices to make. We can either stagnate or make changes now in order to flourish, the choice is clear.