November 27, 2009

Where do we go from here?


The people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines have spoken, decisively so. In the first ever referendum to be staged in this country, the proposition put before them, to support the Constitutional Bill 2009, was rejected not only by a mere failure to achieve the required two-thirds majority as many speculated before the poll. Rather it was an emphatic victory of the “NO” campaign over the “YES” vote, by a margin of almost 7,000 votes and a major triumph, in political terms by more than 12 per cent of the votes cast.{{more}}

This result must have surpassed the wildest dreams of those who advocated rejection of the Constitutional Bill. Even with the benefit of hindsight, there are few who would have predicted such a decisive outcome. It must have also brought about a terrible nightmare for Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves who was handed his first major political defeat since his sweeping triumph at the polls in 2001. His gamble to put the Constitution to the test of the electorate has backfired massively and the hopes and aspirations of many who worked on constitutional reform were severely damaged in the process.

As we offer our congratulations to Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace and his New Democratic Party (NDP) which spearheaded the “NO” campaign, we must at the same time take stock of the implications of the referendum for our country and the wider region as a whole. Changing the Constitution bequeathed from Colonial times was always going to be a risky experiment in a politically-charged environment. And our environment going into the referendum was nothing if not politically charged. Indeed, not only were the opposing camps almost identical to the “tribes” of the 1998, 2001 and 2005, but right up to the eve of the poll, other, non-constitutional controversies, continued to grab the limelight.

The unfortunate result was the sacrificing of a splendid opportunity for constitutional reform on the altar of political expediency. In the end it was not the country which emerged foremost, but party. The fingers may be pointed in this or that direction, but that much cannot be denied. Was it too ambitious, even as we boast about our “Education Revolution” to stage such a referendum at this time? Were our people ready to put aside the day to day political, economic and social issues, for higher issues of constitutional governance? Was the timing right? We can go on and on in soul-searching like this.

What is undeniable that in spite of the outcome, the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines have made constitutional gains. Even those who have not read, either the current constitution or the rejected one are now aware that there is a body of laws called the national Constitution. More importantly, they now know that they are the people with the power to determine acceptance or rejection of any such laws. The effectiveness of that power may be blunted when political partisanship clouds one’s judgment, but the people have the power.

Finally, where do we go from here? Constitutionally, we can realistically expect any government in the foreseeable future to revive the reform process, to try to get an amended version of the Constitutional Bill 2009 approved by the people? Would such an effort attract bipartisan support or will it suffer the fate of its predecessor? Politically, what will be the reaction on the ground? Will the Parliamentary Opposition flex its muscles, buoyed by its victory and demand early general elections? How will the Gonsalves government fare under pressure?

In conclusion, SEARCHLIGHT would like to pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of the Constitutional Review Commission, led by the indefatigable Mr. Parnel Campbell Q.C for a sterling contribution to our development process and commend Prime Minister Gonsalves for his courage and faith in people demonstrated by his willingness to face the electorate on such a crucial issue.