R. Rose
August 31, 2007

Civil society, politics and the Constitution

The Constitutional Review Steering Committee is engaged in a very important exercise with a Committee for the Whole House of Assembly on fleshing out some ideas on constitutional reform, which would serve as a basis for the team expected to draft a new Constitution for St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Regrettably, the Opposition in the Parliament continues to refuse to participate in the process, unless four issues raised by the Leader of the Opposition are “satisfactorily dealt with.”{{more}}

These issues are:

(1) Making available to the Opposition the official report on the General Elections of 2005.

(2) Getting Senator Julian Francis to publicly explain his controversial post-election comments on knowing how members of the Lebanese (Syrian) Community voted for him in the aforesaid elections.

(3) The dismantling of ULP billboards; and

(4) The resignation of the Supervisor of Elections

True to form, all four demands relate to issues springing from the last General Elections, and are thus in the context of the overbearing partisan rivalry between the governing ULP and opposing NDP, which continues to tear our society apart. I have little sympathy for the Supervisor of Elections, especially in the context of the failure to have any plausible explanation for the lapse in security which led to some drowning politicians holding on to the straw of the ballot-box affair. As for Senator Francis, his rash remarks put him in hot water, but common sense and the rigours of our electoral mechanisms undermine the validity of any claims about violating the secrecy of the ballot. Finally, the billboards! The least said on this, the better. That cannot be a serious barrier to participation in constitutional reform. If the citizens of our country are fed up with them, they will go (I notice the Sion Hill one is already being defaced). But, what is the big thing? In Dominica, former Prime Minister Edison James maintained a big one in his constituency long after he had lost power.

The withdrawal of the Opposition is both an embarrassment to its representative on the CRC, Mr. Elvin Jackson, whose performance put those of his Parliamentary colleagues in the shade, and who was a real credit to the work of the CRC, even when he disagreed at times with maturity and dignity. Before him, Mr. Israel Bruce, though argumentative, also made valuable contributions to the constitutional reform process. The same cannot be said of the rabble-rousers.

Yet the absence of the NDP from the on-going discussion merely serves to validate the central contention of the CRC that we need to fashion a constitution which would facilitate one of its overriding objections, that of minimizing, if not eliminating political tribalism from our body politic. Along with this were the objectives of deepening and strengthening democratic values and practices and, in so doing, provide a meaningful framework for civil society involvement in governance.

This matter of civil society and its participation in governance is clearly one on which there is need for substantial clarity. Perhaps the CRC itself, given the extensiveness of its consultations, itself took it for granted that the concept was understood, making it easy to fathom, not necessarily agree with, its own proposals in this regard. The responses from Parliamentarians and some members of the public as expressed via the news media indicate otherwise. It is as if some constitutional coup is planned. We have to be patient in grappling with the idea and pain-staking in fleshing it out. Even those who rush to condemn and dismiss would do themselves no harm if they try to reason out the matter before coming to conclusions, some of them as wide of the mark as to suggest complete misunderstanding of the concept.

First of all, there are those who tend to be derisory and dismissive when they refer to “civil society.” Some can be forgiven, perhaps, for taking a cue from others, but when leaders of our people, Parliamentarians, are among this lot, we are in deep xxxxx.

Our country is among 77 African, Caribbean and Pacific states which signed, through former MP John Horne, an agreement with the European Union called the Cotonou Agreement, because it was signed in Cotonou, the capital of the West African state of Benin.

One central gangplank of this agreement is its emphasis on the participation of the citizens of the signatory countries in governance in their own countries and in the implementation of the co-operation agreement between the ACP and EU. Now, in order for those citizens to participate effectively, they organize themselves around shared interests and values. So, in a broad sense, we, as citizens, are all part of civil society, but in order to advance those shared interests, purposes and values, we gather in different types of organizations. There are organizations which are based on economic issues (trade unions, organizations of business persons, fisherfolk, farmers etc.), organizations which are essentially social in nature, religious organizations, and so on. This is what is called organized civil society, and when reference is made to civil society organizations, it is in this direction it is pointed.

Clearly, outside of going into a polling booth once every five years, citizens would have much more opportunity to participate if we organize.