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Elections? The will of the people? – Part 2

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General elections in St. Vincent and the Grenadines have for half of a century now been dominated by two-party politics. The PPP- Labour divided of the 1955-1974 period being followed by an equally divisive Labour- NDP rivalry of 1974- 1994 and the even more rancorous NDP- ULP contest since then which sometimes border on enmity. In those 50 years several third, fourth and fifth forces have tried to break the two- party stranglehold. None have succeeded either succumbing to political attrition or being absorbed by one of the existing major parties.{{more}}

This is not just for lack of appeal, support or impact. The United People’s Movement (UPM) of 1979 fame had all of that. Rather it has to do with the constitutional provisions governing the conduct of general elections, specifically the Westminster first-past- the-post system. In such circumstances, those who emerge on top, irrespective of what percentage of the popular vote, take all the spoils. Even the party that comes second is disadvantaged in terms of parliamentary representation. It inevitably leads to post- election bitterness and disputes. Witness Dominica in the wake of the May 5th poll there, or our own St. Vincent and the Grenadines, 1998 and 2001, as prime examples of this.

Under such a system, it is possible for a political party gaining the majority of votes nation- wide, not to become the party of government, whilst another, with the minor share of the popular vote, wins power. Can we call that an expression of the “will of the people” as a whole? For this reason the debate over an appropriate system of voting continues to rage on, as persons search for the fairest solution. To many, the system of proportional representation provides a more equitable division of seats and power. It is a constitutional issue that we all must tackle in engineering a more relevant constitution.

But the system of proportional representation is not without its drawbacks. It can lead to political instability, depending on how votes and seats are distributed and, as has been demonstrated in many nations, can leave a government often beholden to a minority group for support in parliament and in carrying out its legislative programme. Creative ways will have to be found to bridge the gap between ensuring Parliamentary representation of all groups and individuals who achieve a base line threshold of a certain number of votes and the need for stable and cohesive government.

The mechanisms which ensure free and fair elections are also central to this goal of having the “will of the people” reflected at the polls. Our Constitution provides for certain basic mechanisms and institutions Constituency Boundaries Commission, Supervisor of Elections, Electoral Department, etc. From time to time appointments to these bodies often give rise to political bickering, controversy and even party confrontation. Yet, it is true to say that, by and large, we have been spared the worst in this regard, in spite of the public posturing of the rival political entities.

In fact, as we proceed on the home stretch to elections, there are already pronouncements by the Opposition of refusing to accept the “people’s verdict” if it does not consider the next election to be free and fair. Misgivings over what is nicely termed “gerrymandering” of boundaries, that is to change boundaries to give one side a particular advantage, seems to be at the root of this strange and pre- mature claim. However both political parties are represented on the Boundaries Commission and from all reports, there has been unanimity in the Commission’s decisions.

Important as all these constitutional and political provisions might be, for me, the state of consciousness of the people themselves is one of the most important determining factors as to whether the outcome of the polls truly reflects the will of the people. It is fundamentally important because more and more, election campaigns have less and less to do with guaranteeing that the will of the people is expressed. There is now blatant manipulation of the electorate, a play on their wants and desires, clear misrepresentation if not deception, a shepherding of the sheep rather than appeals to reason and rationality. These work well where the level of popular consciousness is low and therefore provide a strong incentive to political leaders to keep that consciousness low.

This is, for me, the saddest part of our political evolution. Thirty years ago we were beginning to break out of the “Follow Your Leader” syndrome the “Me ah Labour, na matter wha” or “Cut me and yo go find the Clock (Key or Star)” blind devotion to a party. Today, for a variety of reasons we have slipped back into the old moulds, or cynically ride bandwagons, not because we feel that it is best for our country and people as a whole, but if we think we can get something personal out of it, even if just a “good time”.

If that is how we decide our future, can we call that the “will of the people”?

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