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Constitutional reform: Bold leadership needed

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Even as the Caribbean turns its attention to Barbados for the next round of its electoral merry-go-round, it is imperative thatthat we go beyond the ‘who won?” and the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the winners and losers. Each national election held reinforces the same old story of the need to re-examine our constitutional arrangements, including the conduct and supervision of our elections.

Last week, I again raised the matter of the Westminster first-past-the post electoral system, which continues to frustrate the popular will in terms of the allocation of parliamentary seats in keeping with the share of votes won by respective parties. Antigua and Barbuda re-confirmed this trend. There, the winning Labour Party won 15 of the 17 seats, but got just under 60 per cent of the votes cast. The Opposition United Progressive Party by contrast has only one seat to show for its 37 per cent share of the vote. How representative is this, or even how fair is it?

Such concerns surface immediately after every election. Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed the distortion all around the region. In 1997 the United Workers’ party in St Lucia got only one seat for its 37 per cent of the votes cast. The very next year, the ULP in St Vincent and the Grenadines narrowly lost the election, in spite of gaining the most votes cast (almost 55 per cent). One year later there was Barbados, where the Democratic Labour Party polled nearly one-third of the votes cast, but got only two of the 28 seats at stake. There was also the first of Dr Keith Mitchell’s trio of clean sweeps, won with a little over 60 per cent of the votes.

We talk about this after election, but shy away from the real cause, and thus the obvious solution- constitutional, political and electoral overhaul. It is still a taboo topic, just as the issue of the shameful retention of the Privy Council. Forty years after independence, we are still afraid to touch these legacies of our colonial masters.

Instead, our sole focus seems to be on winning elections – by any means necessary. This includes the employment of foreign “strategists” and their use of dirty tricks. The well-documented case of the SCL and its manipulation in elections throughout the region, as well as in foisting Donald Trump on the world, demonstrates this clearly. We now have the embarrassing exposure of the Leader of the Opposition here by Antiguan Prime Minister Gaston Browne, in his desperate search for “help” – to win the next elections.

This desperation has been with us since the 2015 elections with challenge after challenge in the Courts about the election outcome. Not only is this costing precious time and money, but it is helping to deflate and demoralize the Opposition supporters for whom the “promised land” must seem as distant as ever.

Is it not more sensible to focus on the obvious weaknesses in the system itself and try to mobilize public opinion around electoral reform to begin with, and leading to constitutional reform itself. Surely, the Government can’t back away, not after having boldly promoted such reform, and putting it to the electorate in a failed referendum. That Government, having been burnt once, seems afraid of the fire, but if the Opposition is prepared to acknowledge its strategic error and to take a more enlightened view, I am confident that there are enough thinking souls in SVG to make it a matter of priority.

The route of lawyers, election observers, seeking foreign assistance to win elections and the lure of millions through “citizenship by investment”, is not leading anywhere. We rejected proposals to strengthen the Election and Boundaries Commission, for the appointment of a chief electoral officer under the supervision of the Commission, but turned around to heap abuse on the supervisor of elections and staff, trying to sully their reputations.

This has neither brought the promised victory nor strengthened our system. We need to put national interests first. Are there persons bold enough on both sides of the House willing to take up the constitutional reform case, even if ought of electoral consideration? If there are, they can be assured to support from outside, including my own humble contribution.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.