The situation in Dominica following the decision of Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit to advise the President (Dominica is a Republic) to dissolve Parliament and to call a snap election for December 6 continues to cause controversy. Skerrit’s Dominica Labour Party (DLP) won the last election by 18 seats to 3 in 2019 and thus has two years to go to complete its 5-year term.
However, in making the election announcement, the Prime Minister cited the need for “rejuvenation” of the government, indicating that 10 candidates who contested the last elections on the DLP ticket will not be on the new slate, allowing for fresh blood in a new administration, should they be successful.
But the matter is not so simple, because opposition forces and civil society groups have objected to the snap election. The main point of contention is the critical one of electoral reform.
Though the previous elections of 2014 and 2019 were adjudged to be “free and fair” by international and regional observers, there was much contention over the electoral process. The opposition United Workers Party (UWP), soundly trounced in five successive elections, called “foul” loudly, citing the registration of voters and especially the fact that thousands of Dominicans living overseas were allowed to come home to vote.
The UWP, itself affected by the resignation of its Political Leader Lennox Linton, charged that following concerns raised in several quarters, P.M. Skerrit had promised on election night, December 6, 2019, to appoint an Electoral Reform Commission.
A one-man Commission, in the person of former Head of the Caribbean Court of Justice, Sir Dennis Byron, has been duly appointed and engaged in its duties.
Incidentally on the same day that the Prime Minister made the election announcement, it has emerged that Sir Dennis had written to the Opposition Leader setting out a timetable for electoral reform between November this year and March 2023. Any coincidence?
It means that the snap election will be held under existing rules which have been the subject of so much controversy as to merit the establishment of the Commission.
Mr. Skerrit has not explained why he has chosen to call the election now rather than wait for the recommendations of Sir Dennis Byron.
The UWP has not only been loud in its condemnation of the snap election, but it also hurriedly announced that it will not contest. This has prompted Prime
Minister Skerrit to chide them for making excuses because they are “leaderless” and “not ready” being in a poor state of organization.
But opposition to the election goes beyond the UWP.
Two other political parties, the Dominica Freedom Party, the party of the late Eugenia Charles, now a pale shadow of its past, and the little-known National Joint Action Movement plus a number of civil society organizations have set up a coalition to protest and campaign against the election.
But there appears to be divided opinion about whether to contest the elections.
A party calling itself the Alternative Peoples Party (APP) has, in a statement from its Acting Political Leader, Tahira Blanchard announced that it intends to contest the poll. While condemning the snap election as being called “in a very deceptive manner” for what it termed “personal and selfish” reasons by Mr. Skerrit, it nevertheless decided to contest. It said that violence and disorder are not wise options to take in the circumstances and so it has decided to contest “to save Dominica from the tyranny of an impending dictatorship”.
But the confusion in opposition circles was highlighted by the resignation of party President, Julius Corbette following Ms. Blanchard’s statement. He gave as his reason that one should not contest such an election because the refusal to have electoral reform demonstrates “gross disrespect, abuse of power and a non-democratic style of government.”
The confusion in Dominica is further complicated by the announcement by two individuals that they will contest. Anthony Charles, a farmer from the Marigot constituency, bedrock of UWP support, has said that he will contest as an independent candidate. Charles is the son of well-known veteran political activist and farmer, “Richie” Charles, who ironically contested the Marigot seat for the DLP unsuccessfully on a couple occasions.
He said that he was encouraged to do so by Marigot constituents, even UWP supporters, and that he “cannot allow the DLP to win by default.” That justification has also been given by another would-be contestant, lawyer, Wayne Norde of Roseau South.
Two personal comments from me. First, one must always be careful about the boycott of such an important process of governance as general elections.
It can present the government with a blank cheque for, by law it will be the duly elected government of the country. If one is boycotting, there must be a clear plan of organization of how to remove the government by legal means.
Yet the demand for electoral reform before elections seems reasonable in the circumstances. It is an issue which affects not only Dominica. In nearly every country now, election losers cry foul. It is so in our country now. Shouldn’t we therefore not press for electoral reform, including the funding of political parties and campaigns?
Finally, there is the broader issue of constitutional reform itself. What P.M. Skerrit has done is perfectly legal, though one may question the morality of it. It is the Prime Minister alone, under the constitutional arrangements we share in these islands, who can call elections, irrespective of the circumstances. Should this continue?
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.