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Elections? The will of the people

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The election fever seems to have taken firm root in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Though the government of the day has another year or so, at maximum, before it must ring the election bell, already the atmosphere in the country is so charged that one can well be led to believe that polling day is right on the doorstep.

It might well be, given the constitutional provision that gives the incumbent Prime Minister the sole right to fix the election date. Since the general elections of 1998, this country has been virtually on a “war footing” as far as the political parties and electioneering are concerned. The media and the various talk shows add significantly to this state of permanent expectation. {{more}}

We operate on the basis of the Westminster system, which is supposed to produce parliamentary democracy. In this system, which for us equates to “democracy”, the holding of general elections is the sacred cow, the guarantee of the exercise of the will of the people. There is much reason however, based on our real practical experience, for us to question the basis of that theory and to ask, not without reason: “do elections really represent the will of the people”?

In answering this question, a lot depends on the context. It depends on the mechanisms for the holding of free and fair elections, the factors which determine whether such elections are indeed “free and fair”, the constitutional and political regulations, the level of the consciousness of the people and on the state of the media and other institutions, which are fundamental to the exercise of the democratic wishes.

Sadly, the closer we get to general elections, the more relevant these criteria seem to become. We get so caught up with the “choices” being put before us, with showing preferences for Tweedle- Dum or Tweedle- Dee, that we often forget the substantial issues. In societies fed on a diet of two- party politics, we become so obsessed in our choices that we forget that black and white are not the only two colours.

Even in Britain, the model on which our constitutional democracy is based, that very danger is not just ever- present but more and more manifested. That country has just held another general election. And in the weeks leading up to the May 5 elections there, the three contesting parties had become so bankrupt in distinguishing policy differences between them that they resorted to this scenario.

LABOUR PARTY: “If you don’t vote or if you vote for the Lib- Dems (the Liberal Democrats, the “third” party), you will end up with Howard and the Tories (Michael Howard, Leader, and the Conservative Party).

CONSERVATIVES: “Tony Blair is a Liar. If you can’t trust him on Iraq, can you trust him with the Government?”

LIB- DEMS: “The other two can’t be trusted. We are the only alternative”.

Yes, that is what a general election in the self- styled Mother of Parliamentary democracy turned out to be. Don’t vote FOR anything, vote to avoid the worst. Preventive politics? So they got a government which is generally accepted to have won because the people didn’t want the Tories back, and the society has not yet made the leap from two- party government to accept the third party.

Much more emerged. A Prime Minister who repeatedly deceived a nation, agreeing with US President George Bush to wage war on Iraq, fully six months before putting forward his argument for war and while strenuously denying that any such decision had been taken. A government run by a virtual cabal of Prime Minister, cronies and advisors, ignoring many elected senior members of cabinet in fundamental policy issues. An opposition accusing a government of lying, but supporting the very same war policy leading to British deaths in Iraq. A three- time victorious Prime Minister whose own colleagues are already showing him the door. An opposition leader who has increased his party’s seats but has announced his impending resignation. A result where parliamentary seat share is out of proportion to share of the popular vote.

We have much the same system, a lot of the same practices, in SVG and the Caribbean. Shouldn’t we be taking a closer look at how we manifest the “will of the people”?

We’ll examine this next week.

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