December 23, 2005
Need for electoral, structural reform



Whatever the evidence and decisions of the courts on the alleged voting irregularities charges made by the opposition New Democratic Party, there is need for electoral and structural reform of the system in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Both the Caricom and Organisation of American States observers note, for instance, that it is not realistic to have an electoral list bloated by 20,000 odd voters who no longer live in St. Vincent and the Grenadines; the present regulations allow for persons to remain on the list long after they have migrated. {{more}}

Such a list opens the ground for suspicion and voter fraud, and uncertainty about real voter participation and would make nonsense of planning if the statistics are used for broader economic and social purposes – to be specific there must be a serious discrepancy between the 2001 census which found 107,000 Vincentians living in the country and the 2005 voters’ list on which 91,000 persons are accounted for; it’s statistically impossible for the country to only have 16,000 persons under the age of 18.

The preliminary report of the OAS mission also calls for enhanced training of electoral staff, and voter education. It was a particularly sloppy piece of work to change the ballot paper for the poll without a thorough voter education programme; indeed, in every election there are new voters and also the need to ensure that new information is given and reinforced for those who have previously participated.

But there is a fundamental change that is needed: to establish transparency and trust in the office of the Supervisor of Elections. The person is now appointed on the advice of the cabinet instead of being a creature of the public service establishment, outside of the reach of the prime minister and his cabinet.

Not only will this remove deep suspicions and allegations, but having the office as part of the public service establishment will also allow for criteria to be set out for the recruitment of a person with the required skills and qualifications.

The Bird regime in Antigua is now learning the lesson of having its political appointees in the job for decades; now the Spencer government is returning the favour.

“…I say to you tonight, no manicou must be given the responsibility of managing the affairs of the country…”

These were the words of Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister Kenny Anthony at the Unity Labour Party’s wind-up rally on the Monday before the election at Victoria Park, the comment being made in the context of the difficult times ahead and the need for Ralph Gonsalves to lead the country, “not a manicou man”.

PM Anthony may attempt verbal semantics to get him out of intervening in the sovereign right of Vincentians to elect their leader unfettered by gratuitous and insulting comments from outside, but no water could wash him clean and in any case that is how his communication was received by a jubilant ULP crowd.

But Anthony was not the only Caricom leader to have intervened in this crucial period in which the Vincentian people were electing a party. Dominica’s Roosevelt Skerritt was there on the platform and this country’s Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, although being more discreet, appeared at a function at the prime minister’s residence and endorsed Ralph Gonsalves.

Manning went further and said he had signed on to a plan to work for greater cooperation between T&T and the OECS singling out Gonsalves as the ideal leader for such cooperation.

Caribbean politicians have polarized their individual electorates into corners; they seem to be now seeking to polarize national populations into enclaves. Will it come to T&T cooperating with St. Vincent and the Grenadines only if Gonsalves and the ULP are in power, similar equation for St. Lucia and Dominica? What if Bharrat Jagdeo were to come to T&T during the next election campaign to support Dookeran/Panday and the UNC, what will happen if the UNC were to lose? What of T&T getting embroiled in the internal politics of Guyana with the combustible race factor as one element in the mix?

Already, PM Gonsalves and Sir John Compton have begun to square-off on the matter; and I find it fascinating that PM Anthony is shouting to the top of his voice that Taiwan should not contribute to Compton’s election campaign.

And that takes us to the completely unproductive internal polarization of Vincentian society into the 56-44- or whatever the right numbers are.

Five years ago this columnist saw it being reflected in the media, now it is full-blown: the print and electronic media are completely useless in terms of objectively informing and educating their audiences for them to participate in meaningful politics based not on religious and emotional fervour but on what is best for the country given the plans and programmes of the various parties.

Driven by the divisive nature of the politics, the wild, irresponsible radio talk-show phenomenon, apparent almost everywhere in the Caribbean, is wrecking the society.

It continues to escape logic that in SVG, in T&T and elsewhere that media can be allowed to operate without standards, without codes, without sufficiently trained and professional staff.

And as in Beetham Estate, Tivoli Gardens, those who have lived in generational poverty in St. Vincent are the ones caught-up in the “them and we craze”

It is the same as in T&T and Guyana without the race factor and no different from the mindlessness which tears Jamaica into rival gangs for an election and what prevails thereafter.

Caribbean politicians need to stand clear of the crowd, give contemplation to what they are doing to their societies in their quest for power before it’s too late. Governor-General Sir Fredrick Ballantyne sounded the right note when he urged Prime Minister Gonsalves to examine the character of the people of SVG and not judge them according to how they may have voted. That’s going to take some doing given the circumstances.

On the question of leadership, Ralph Gonsalves is clearly in a stream different from Arnhim Eustace: the former an enthusiastic, energetic and committed leader capable of inspiring his people; the latter, an honest technician perhaps capable of clinical work. Given the obvious presidential-type campaign, Eustace and the NDP will always run second.

However, there are always down sides to the “stand out” leader. He so dominates his MPs and perhaps leaves so little space for them to manoeuvre that they feel intimidated and restricted. And this is in the tradition of Williams, the two Manleys and now Arthur and Panday.

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