R. Rose
November 27, 2009

A new Political Equation

OH WHAT A NIGHT! The pioneering effort in Constitution-making came crashing down (temporarily, the most optimistic of us may hope) on Wednesday night when the electorate of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, given an unprecedented opportunity to decide on the constitutional future of our country, decided to keep the constitution handed down on October 27th, 1979 rather than one of our own creation.{{more}} The results of the poll showed that some 29,019 persons rejected the Constitution Bill 2009 as against 22,493 who voted in favour. With the referendum turned into a political football, one can only construe the results as a result as a resounding political victory for the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP). Congrats to Mr. Eustace and his team even though I may abhor some of the methods used to attain victory.

The NDP/ NO Vote campaign has undoubtedly won, including the dirty propaganda war. It has never been so dirty, not even 30 years ago. But the question must be asked, who has lost? It is our process to constitution-making, that bold decision, once we recognized the inadequacies of the present, to dare to shape one of our own and to try to scale the Colonial heights of the two-thirds majority approval, that is the real VICTIM. It is a significant setback for political and constitutional development with long-term implications not just for SVG, but for the rest of the Caribbean as well. We were seen as the vanguard for Caribbeanisation of the constitutions we all received from Whitehall in London and many eyes were turned in our direction. Many will be the faces of disbelief and, for a people to hold to the British monarchy and the Privy Council, when presented with a home-grown alternative, it is a big embarrassment. One can hear the words of the Mighty Chalkdust signing out “…White People laughing at we…”

All the hard work, sleepless nights and commitment of the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) and the Steering Committee which succeeded it have been undermined by the result. The bipartisanship, representing a new consensus in our politics, which underpinned the reform process, was jettisoned in favour of political partisanship. When the heat was turned on the cauldron of the referendum campaign, the poor Constitution never had a chance. The concerns about compensation for property compulsorily acquired (the “market value” debate) was put side by side with the charges of communism (state taking away your property), to become a politically explosive cocktail. Rather than uplifting the understanding of our people, the political operatives in the “NO” camp, chose to go for scare-mongering. It worked. Much speculation is already taking place as to the reasons for the outcome. Were there enough consultations, at the critical stages? Was the type of campaign best suited for an issue like the Constitution, was the timing right, etc. etc? Then there are those who decry the lining up of opposition political tribes, and who contend that the CRC should have spearheaded the campaign, not the Cabinet-appointed “YES Committee”. Whether that would have made much of a difference is open to question, for certainly in the last days, Civil Society leaders including members of the CRC, seemed unprepared, afraid even, to depend the Constitution Bill.

There is no gainsaying that this has been a major political development. True, the Constitution is not politics and the referendum is not a general election, but the NDP has scored a major victory. Had the results been for a general election it would have won 13 of the 15 seats. This raises the issue of proportional representation for that party’s share of the votes was just over 55 per cent. Under the first-past-the-post system, that 55 per cent would have been given them 86 per cent of the seats. No wonder the NDP, following Mitchell’s intervention, opposed constitutional change (Don’t touch the present Constitution).

The level of our understanding of the issues was another worrying factor. The proposal for a Republic was twisted to manipulate people to believe that our EC dollar was to be changed (the Queen head is on it) ignoring the fact that the dollar we share with the Eastern Caribbean states is tied not to the British pound, but in value to the US dollar. Other were led to believe that republican status would require us to have to get a visa to visit Canada or England, even though that was not so. In fact, the country that most uncertain wish to visit, the USA, is a country like the vast majority of others in the world, for which a visa is required.

For the ruling ULP the result presents a challenge, no matter how it analyses the outcome. Clearly, in addition to distortion of the constitutional issues, the matter of trust became important. Parliamentarians on the government side, judging by the results, seem to have lost the trust of their constituents and failed to make convincing case for a new Constitution. Luckily for them, their seats were not at stake, but can the ULP afford to bring these back before the electorate in a year’s time? What of the PM himself the Central figure in the episode? How much trust and confidence in him has been eroded naturally?

The NDP will now be on the march. It has not forgotten 2000, even if it may have not drawn the correct conclusions. There will no doubt be a clamour for the government to resign and it will press for early general elections, a situation which ULP will want to avoid until it can reorganise. But what is its position on the Constitution? Will it commit itself to some form of future constitutional reform? Will it encourage its supporters, once settled to begin to read and study both Constitutions as a necessary step in their own political development?

Interesting times lie ahead.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.