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Dr Denzil Douglas’ defeat re-opens debate on limited terms of office


So, the Kittian “electoral pharmacist,” dethroned leader Dr Denzil Douglas, was wrong after all! His self-styled “winning prescription” was rejected by the people of St Kitts/Nevis when they at last had the chance to vote, and he was roundly booted out of office at the general elections held last Monday.{{more}}

In spite of the irresponsible manoeuvres which had the effect of creating further political uncertainty, Douglas had finally to face up to reality and to prepare himself for the transition from being virtual “Lord of all he surveyed,” in his twin-island state at least, to the status of the politically-humbled and to take a place on the Opposition benches.

In more ways than one, he had begged for this and as we would say colloquially, “wey he look fa’, he get um.” Douglas had defied Parliamentary censure, ignored public opinion and attempted to manipulate the law and the course of justice in his vain bid to remain supreme in his country. He even tried to change the electoral boundaries and was only thwarted at the last moment by a Privy Council ruling.

(On this latter point, there are those who would use the Privy Council ruling to try to justify our continued adherence to it, alluding to the contrary ruling of the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal; but who is to say that the distinguished Caribbean Court of Justice would have ruled any differently from the Privy Council?)

Back to Douglas and St Kitts/Nevis, however. His is the typical example of what happens when one attempts to hold on to power ad infinitum. So entrenched had he become in the Prime Minister’s seat that he actually believed that it was his, to have and to hold, and to determine when he would leave, on what terms, and who would be his successor. He is not the first to make such a fatal political error, nor, sadly, will he be the last. Politicians rarely seem to learn from history, forgetting that “time longer than rope” or that “moon does run till sun catch up with it.”

It is the will of the people which counts most, and those who overstay their time will pay the price for it. This brings into focus the issue of the much-discussed principle of limited terms for a prime minister. During our own constitutional review process, 2003/9, it became clear that a significant number of Vincentians, both here and in the diaspora, were of the opinion that prime ministers should have limited terms of office.

Indeed, not just in constitutional discussions. Many political parties in the Caribbean, SVG included, have put forward this proposal in their election manifestos, underlying the strength of public opinion in this direction. Unfortunately, saying something in Opposition, and doing it when in power, is all too often irreconcilable in Caribbean politics. Several Caribbean leaders, including Drs Kenny Anthony of St Lucia and Ralph Gonsalves of SVG, have found it expedient to change their view once in office.

This is not to say that there is not some merit in arguments to the contrary, or that specific circumstances may warrant some flexibility. But the overwhelming evidence is that there is a tendency towards growing arrogance, the longer one stays in office. Also, in spite of what positive benefits may accrue to a country and its people during the extended rule, there is also the fact that the people tend to get PM-fatigue, that while they may enjoy benefits, a yearning for a new face develops.

This is not always beneficial because not all change turns out for the better. There are examples of electorates in the region regretting the change and taking steps to correct it at the first opportunity. But more than ever, the case of Douglas and St Kitts/Nevis tells us that we need intelligent discussion on the issue. Not discussion based on personalities or political convenience, but soundly weighing up the pros and cons in the light of what is best for our democracies.

Caribbean leaders like to pay homage to Nelson Mandela; they seem to forget that after all the years of sacrifice, he was man enough to walk away from office, having made his contribution. South Africa, with all its problems, has survived after his departure. These islands will continue after Douglas and whoever else!

Renwick Rose is a community activist

and social com- mentator.