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Recent elections in the Caribbean and implications for Regional Integration

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Over the past month, elections were held in Guyana, St Lucia and Jamaica, resulting in changes in leadership in the latter two countries,while in Guyana, the electoral verdict resulted in a delicate balance. In the cases of St Lucia and Jamaica, the incumbent Prime Ministers were allowed only one term in office, a mere three months where the 39-year-old Andrew Holness of Jamaica was concerned. Holness’ two-month occupation of the Prime Minister’s seat was surpassed only by the six-week reign of Sir Donald Sangster in 1964, but Sangster died in office.{{more}} His brief term would be better compared with the five month-occupation of the Prime Minister’s office by Mr. Arnhim Eustace in SVG 2000/2001.

In both St Lucia and Jamaica, the elections brought the return of former occupants of the Prime Minister’s chair, Dr Kenny Anthony and the veteran female politician Portia Simpson-Miller, respectively. Both are expected to return to the office they once occupied, humbled by their defeats in 2007 and perhaps wiser as a result of their years on the opposition benches.

Guyana on the other hand, now has a new, though politically experienced, President, consequent upon former President Jagdeo being constitutionally barred from running for a third term. Unlike the clear victories in the other two territories, the new President Donald Ramotar, will have to govern with a parliament in which his governing Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) does not command a majority. He will have to walk the political tightrope, much as US President Barrack Obama.

In all three elections, scandals and the smear of corruption played their part in influencing the electorate. In St Lucia, the death of Sir John Compton in 2007 left his United Workers Party (UWP) without a clear leader, and though Stephenson King was made his successor, he never seemed to command the loyalty of what turned out to be an unruly bunch. Scandal after scandal plagued King’s administration, although to his credit he was never implicated in any of them. There were even challenges to his leadership with the trio of Keith Mondesir, Rufus Bousquet and Richard Frederick being particularly notorious. In fact, Frederick was forced to resign on the eve of the election, after the US government withdrew his visas at both an official and personal level. These scandals, even more than the handling of the economy, proved to be the UWP’s death knell.

A major scandal also helped to topple the Jamaica Labour Party government. That scandal, the infamous ‘Dudus’ Coke affair, in which former Prime Minister Bruce Golding was implicated in using government offices to protect and defend a confessed and convicted major drug dealer, was too big a millstone for the JLP to bear. Even the last minute resignation of Golding and an attempt to hoodwink the electorate with the choice of the young Holness as his successor could not stem the tide of Portia Simpson-Miller’s Peoples National Party.

Guyana, too, was not without its allegations of corruption against figures in the previous government and persons closely associated with the leadership. This undermined the traditional majority that the PPP enjoyed over the years, which was largely based on the support of the major ethnic group, Indo-Guyanese. In-fighting in the PPP, resulting in the departure of some of its stalwarts, also affected Ramotar’s bid to inherit the unbridled mantle of leadership, once enjoyed by his predecessors.

Now that all three elections are out of the way, it is useful to reflect on what effect the changes will have on the regional integration movement. The new Chirman of CARICOM, Desi Bouterse of Suriname, (himself no stranger to scandal), has identified the year 2012 as “The Year of the Change”, focusing his attention on the regional integration movement and the role of the CARICOM Secretariat in it. “We must ensure that the people of the (CARICOM) Community feel the impact and recognize the benefits that can come from integration”, he is quoted as saying in his New Year address.

It is a major challenge. Take Jamaica, for instance. Ever since it voted in the infamous referendum in 1961 to abandon the West Indian Federation, that country has pursued an inward – and northward looking focus, in spite of participating in CARICOM. This has been particularly so whenever the JLP, whose leader, the late Sir Alexander Bustamante, led the 1961 campaign, has been in office. The fate and future of their so-called “small-island” neighbours do not appear to be high priorities for many Jamaicans. A glimmer of hope may have had a peep in the commitment of Ms Simpson-Miller at her inauguration to make regional integration central to her policies and in an unequivocal pledge to reverse Jamaica’s policy and make the Caribbean Court of Justice the final Court of Appeal in the region.

Similarly, regionalists like myself, though under no illusion, would be encouraged by the return of Dr Anthony to office. Not only is he a committed regionalist, but he also enjoys close personal and party relations with the leaders of his immediate neighbouring countries, Dominica and SVG. Under the King administration, although King’s personal commitment was not questioned, the influence of the moneyed Senator/Minister Allen Chastanet, saw his country playing a strange maverick role on a number of issues, regional air transportation being the most notable one. With Chastanet out of the way, and given the reality of the enormous challenges facing the region, perhaps Dr Anthony could lead a turnaround.

The people of the region certainly expect that the changes in administration will bring renewed commitment to the integration process and that the lessons learnt at the polls make it clear that we expect honest and accountable government.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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