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Barbados Elections again reveals fundamental political weaknesses

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As the shock sweep of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in Barbados at last week’s general elections begins to sink in, the big question is being asked, “how could this happen”?

Barbados has always been considered the model of two-party democracy in the Caribbean, a faithful clone of the Westminster Parliamentary system which is based on the assumption of a parliament with a Government on one side, and an Opposition on the other, so a total rout of one side or the other was virtually unthinkable before last Thursday.

Clean sweeps are nothing new to the Caribbean. Eric Williams’ PNM did it in Trinidad and Tobago after the opposition boycotted the 1971 elections. More recently, the political “broom” of Dr Keith Mitchell in Grenada has swept his opponents, not once, not twice, but three times. Before him, our own Sir James Mitchell achieved the feat in 1989, and in our first elections after Adult Suffrage, the fabled Eighth Army of Liberation, though not a cohesive party, swept the polls in 1951.

In spite of these precedents, Barbados was considered to be “different”, and though the unpopular DLP government appeared to be catapulting to defeat, a clean sweep was not among the predictions. Now that it has happened, all kinds of speculation about future elections in the Caribbean are being made, including the one that “it can happen here” (SVG), as well. Not impossible by any means, but specific circumstances must be borne in mind.

In the case of the Barbados elections, there are several issues which should be of interest to Vincentians and other Caribbean citizens. First, there is the tussle over the registration of Commonwealth, more specifically, CARICOM citizens who fulfilled the residential qualifications under the Constitution. A University of the West Indies lecturer had challenged the refusal to register him to vote and went all the way to the Appeal Court to insist on his right. Ominously, for us all, though the Constitution guaranteed this right, the Election authorities refused to honour it and the name of the lecturer and similarly qualified persons were not added to the list until polling day, causing serious logistical problems. What if, instead of a University lecturer it had been a humble Vincentian tradesman, living in Barbados and suitably qualified?

The logistical problems created by this registration challenge had grave implications for the completion of polling and the tally of votes. Listeners in SVG, and I presume in the rest of the Caribbean, were horrified that it took almost five hours after the polls had closed before the first set of results were released. Could you imagine what would have happened in a volatile situation as we have here, if that had been the case, good reason or not? “Dey teef”, would have been the blatant accusation and it would have been a miracle if a riot were avoided. So, hats off to the Barbadian electorate, their patience and maturity.

The Voters List was again an issue in the elections, with charges of irregularities. It is a perennial issue in all elections in the Caribbean and speaks to the need for a review of the entire electoral system. We seem not to be able to conduct general elections in the Commonwealth Caribbean without the same problems leading to post-election challenges, in Court and without. All our systems are similar if not identical, is it not time to iron out the kinks?

There are also post-election issues in Barbados. One revolves around the size of new Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s Cabinet. The defeated opposition has charged that the size, the largest in Barbados history, would place a strain on the public purse, already over-stretched. However the PM has responded that one cannot be proverbially, “penny-wise and pound foolish”, and it is the long-term results which will matter most.

There is also the matter of the lack of an Opposition in Parliament, a situation which neither the Constitution of Barbados, nor its neighbours has envisaged. Again, it raises the issue of Constitutional reform and PM Mottley has suggested a short-term amendment. But, as this column continues to argue, it goes beyond short-term measures. We need fundamental reform of our entire political, electoral and constitutional provisions. Nothing less will do and in the failure to do these, every election, every political battle will find us wanting.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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