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Travelling along thorny paths

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Opinions from all quarters expect that this year is going to be a challenging one for our country. Where the differences exist are on our ability to successfully mount and overcome those challenges, at least in the short to medium term. Under the circumstances, the year could not have started on a worse note for the country. The budget presented to parliament in January reflected the challenging times rather than being an antidote to help to meet the economic difficulties that the country faces and will continue to face for some time.{{more}} If that was not enough, the political fallout continued to grow and signalled a bad omen for the path ahead. The introduction of two controversial pieces of legislation took place at a time when the Prime Minister has promised to listen to the people and in a context where the government has a slim one seat majority in parliament and with the popular vote being almost evenly divided. Just before midnight on Friday, January 28, the amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code was passed, with some members of parliament being absent because of religious reasons. The rushing into law of this piece of legislation in the face of protests outside of parliament shows a complete lack of sensitivity to the views of a significant section of the population. It was as though those responsible for its introduction were sending a message that we voted them into power so they could do whatever they wanted to do. It shows also a callousness that is remarkable.

The second bit of legislation involving an amendment to the Representation of the People Act is to be debated on Tuesday, February 8, and is likely to face increased voices of protest from Opposition members and others who are opposed to the amendment. The country is set on a dangerous path. In fact, last Friday brought back reminiscences of 1935. At that time, two pieces of legislation were brought before parliament. Working class Vincentians gathered around the Court House and made their voices heard. Parliament was interrupted, the situation on the grounds of the Court House got completely out of hand, and riots started. January 28 closely resembled that as protestors stormed the gates of the Court Yard which were then closed. If the Government thought it needed to introduce these bills why was time not given to adequately inform people and have the bills discussed throughout the country? The answer is clear for they involve private criminal complaints brought against sitting members of Parliament, persons whom, interestingly enough, are expected to vote on the measures.

With a majority in parliament, the Government is likely to have the second bill passed. That will obviously not be the end of the matter, for the political fallout will intensify and relations between the two parties in parliament will grow increasingly bitter and talk of reconciliation will become that more difficult. All of this is happening while Vincentians by courtesy of the Internet and Cable Television have been viewing the historic struggle by the people of Egypt against a government that has lost touch with the people. President Hosni Mubarak’s firing of his Cabinet and his appointment of a new Vice President, with the objective of holding talks on political reform and beginning dialogue with Opposition forces have perhaps come too late. Uprisings in Tunisia have had a domino effect that is impacting on Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Sudan and Egypt. The Middle East and North Africa are in the throes of political turmoil. At this stage no one is sure where all of this will end. The people in Egypt have turned out in huge numbers to protest their dissatisfaction with the government of Mubarak. His firing of the Cabinet and his promise not to seek re -election at the scheduled September elections have not brought an end to his problems because there is an element of distrust that is feeding a fear that by September the President might be singing a completely different tune. So far the violence has been limited, thanks largely to the Military’s decision not to fire on the protestors and the decision to replace the police with their record of oppression by the army. But things could easily get out of hand as was shown on Wednesday when pro-Mubarak supporters began battling for space and for a prominent place in whatever comes out of this standoff. Some of the evidence so far seems to indicate that some of the pro-Mubarak supporters were paid and forced to go and do battle on behalf of their beleaguered President. Mubarak’s tight 30 year grip on power in Egypt appears to be coming to an end. The manner in which it will do so is still not clear, but one suspects that the Americans and Europeans are playing a significant role behind the scenes.

It will be far-fetched to draw parallels between Egypt and St.Vincent and the Grenadines. It demonstrates, however, the old saying that ‘A day in politics is a long time.’ Not many would have thought a month ago that what is now happening in Egypt could have happened. For thirty years the President held a tight grip on power in the country. Now that grip is loosening and his survival or the manner in which he leaves active politics will depend significantly on the military and the United States of America which had been his big supporter, providing him over the years with enormous aid. Political leaders must never take their people for granted. People’s power manifests itself at times when it is least expected. Leaders need to listen to the people and to understand the limitations of their power. In SVG, a section of the people is speaking. Its voices must be heard because it has legitimacy. Any attempt to ride roughshod over the concerns of the people will ultimately fail. The road on which we are travelling is perilous, so we ought to think carefully before we attempt to move along the path we are moving.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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