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Back to square one: Political maturity needed

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The much anticipated hearing of the appeal to the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal by two candidates of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), in relation to the results of elections for the North Windward and Central Leeward constituencies in the December 2015 general elections, finally took place in St Lucia on Tuesday of this week.

As predicted by the party’s leader, Hon Godwin Friday, the verdict was delivered in favour of the appellants, the Court ruling that the original election petitions filed by them, and thrown out by Justice Brian Cottle, should be reinstated and heard by the High Court. The Court found that the ruling of Justice Cottle was “tainted by bias”, a charge long made by the Opposition, and ordered that a different judge should hear the petitions.

Naturally, Opposition Leader Friday, his legal team and supporters are cock-a-hoop over the verdict. Mr Friday described it as “a victory for democracy” and a “vindication” of his party’s insistence in pursuing the matter before the courts. Founder of the NDP and former party leader and Prime Minister, Sir James Mitchell, had on more than one occasion, called on the party to fight the issues in the political field, at the polls, rather than in the court. The Opposition Leader also called for the “expeditious” hearing of the petitions and for free and fair elections to be held “as soon as possible”.

Both Mr Friday and Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves have been quick to point out to supporters that the matter is not yet resolved and must again be heard in court. For his part, Dr Gonsalves tried to dampen the triumphant expressions of the Opposition supporters by pointing out that the Appeal Court ruling does not represent “a political victory” for the NDP. While accepting the ruling of the Court, he has expressed confidence in the strength of the case of his side, claiming to be “unperturbed” about the decision and “confident” that the petitions will again be thrown out by the new judge.

So where does this leave us, the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines? For sure, it has again raised the political ante, and will contribute to the further heightening of political tensions, which had subsided slightly in recent times. Intense political propaganda and campaigning are sure to be the order of the day once more, as both sides jockey for positions in the ultimate battle, fresh general elections. Both party leaders have expressed their preference in this direction.

Yet, for the good of the country, it is not just the political contest which is important. When the dust settles over the eventual court ruling, what is of paramount importance is not the drama of a ‘who-dunnit’, who did what and was right or wrong. Of greater importance to us all are the fundamental lessons to be learnt and how do we repair what may have been damaged or impaired.

Much attention in this electoral challenge centred on the actions of election officials, particularly the much-harangued Supervisor of Elections. Sections 32-35 of our Independence Constitution sets out the role and powers of the Constituencies Boundaries Commission, the Supervisor and staff. These provisions came in for much public discussion during the six-year Constitutional Reform process, ending in the referendum of 2009. Revamped proposals for greater democratic control were put forward in Sections 94-96 of the ill-fated constitution, rejected in the referendum.

After all the court wrangling, one way or another, general elections are going to be called again. Does the current impasse not behove the contending political parties to demonstrate maturity, to put the interests of country first and to work out a common solution to the conduct of elections, even if we must amend the relevant sections of the Constitution to do so? Or must we remain trapped in the political mire forever?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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