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Elections, elections, elections


Many moons ago, my generation was taught the importance of the three Rs reading, writing and arithmetic. Our Prime Minister, a product of that generation, has just doubled that in his address to Parliament, during the debate on the Supplementary Estimates, making reference to six Rs – Relief, Reconstruction, Relocation, Rivers, Roads and Reforestation. However, if we are to refer to his speech at the 13th anniversary celebrations of the electoral triumph of his Unity Labour Party (ULP), one can only conclude, somewhat jokingly, that he went back to the three Rs, only this time in reference to Ralph, Re-election and Renewal.{{more}}

Given the context, electoral considerations were foremost, down to the choice of venue, between the key Opposition-held constituencies of North and South Leeward. Though the ULP still has another potential 20 months in office, all the signs are that the coming months will be dominated by electoral considerations. Not that this is anything new in SVG, for since 1998 our country has been in a virtual election mode.

Elections, that gangplank of democracy in modern times, is a strange creature. It is potentially the great human leveller, for on Election Day, the vote of the poorest person counts just as much as that of the richest or most powerful. It is for this reason that, over the years, in countries which subscribe to parliamentary democracy, there has been systematic undermining of that potential levelling force. The rich and powerful have organized to influence or take hold of the parties which mobilize the power of the people, to corrupt even parties formed exclusively to promote the interests of the poor and downtrodden and to make mockery of the significance of the electoral process.

More and more, it is money which plays a huge role in determining election results. Committed, well-meaning persons with a track record of service, have little chance of succeeding unless on a big party ticket and well-funded. Campaigns cost money, big money. In addition, though our Constitution speaks of parliamentary representatives and not parties, with a Cabinet in which, according to Westminster system, the Prime Minister is “first among equals,” in practice, we do have a presidential system in reality. People vote largely according to party and, within it, the Maximum Leader.

That power of the Leader can be a force for good or evil, depending on circumstances. A look at our own Caribbean and our experiences since Adult Suffrage would bear this out.

There is also the weird power constitutionally vested in the Prime Minister, giving that person the sole right to determine when elections are called. True, there is a five-year maximum, but the PM is not even bound to consult his parliamentary colleagues about the date of the next elections. A country may be in trouble, the ship of state rudderless and lacking direction, the people could be bawling out for a chance to exercise their franchise, but it is the PM who decides. We, therefore, have the ridiculous situation of leaders bragging that the election date is in the “back pocket” of the Prime Minister!

That power of the Prime Minister in determining the date of elections sometimes leads to political unrest. It is a prerogative being exercised by the Prime Minister of St Kitts/Nevis, in the face of a longoverdue motion of no-confidence, although he has a point in saying that the defectors from his party should first resign from Parliament and face by-elections, as in the case of Jack Warner in Trinidad. It is also a source of contention in another twin-island state, Antigua and Barbuda.

While elections represent an important democratic mechanism, there is much which needs to be rectified to make them more meaningful. It calls for fundamental constitutional, political and electoral reform. But so far, especially in the Caribbean, we have been reluctant to do more than tinkering. SVG was on the right path 2003/9 but we balked at the hurdle, weakened the thrust and ended up dumping even the watered-down package.

Much remains to be done if we are to channel that tremendous potential power of the ballot into a force for ongoing democratic participation. We have a long way to go to ensure that the people control their parties and the parties in turn have influence on the actions of the leaders. The contradiction between the Westminster provisions on paper and the presidential nature of our elections and political system needs to be addressed. Campaign financing is still a scourge, which can potentially undermine the will of our people. We appear to be in love with elections, so why not let us ensure that they are healthy and serve us well?

Renwick Rose is a community activist

and social com- mentator.