Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MONTSERRAT-POLITICS: Elections Amid Volcanic Rumbling

Patrick Smikle

PLYMOUTH, Sep 20 1996 (IPS) - Building a nation in the shadow of a grumbling mountain must bring new problems, for instance what should the government do about elections constitutionally due?

Until this week, speculations were that the dislocations caused by the spitting of molten rocks by the Soufriere hills volcano since mid-July last year would mean a pause in this aspect of life for the Montserrations as they focus their energies on dodging the sulphur-laced belches of ash and smoke.

But with the resignation this week of Communications and Works Minister, Noel Tuitt, it is more than likely that Montserratians will now go to the polls before year end while still living in the shadow of a grouchy volcano.

Tuitt cited as his reason for stepping down loss of confidence in Chief Minister, Reuben Meade.

The minister’s resignation means the present government has lost its majority control in the Legislative Council and now only holds three of the seven seats.

The three non-government members of the council call themselves independents. However, all three are known to be seeking alliances with old and new political parties.

Opposition Leader, Bertram Osbourne has now joined forces with former Chief Minister, P. Austin Bramble to form “The Movement for National Reconstruction.” John Osborne who was Chief Minister until his defeat by Reuben Meade in 1991, has announced the formation of a yet unnamed political party.

Several other people have indicated that they will contest the election as independent candidates.

And the several opposition politicians and their various parties are united on two issues — their insistence that despite the volcanic activity, elections should be held as constitutionally due, and their suspicion that the representative of the British monarch, Governor Frank Savage, the final constitutional authority in this British dependency, will postpone the elections.

These suspicions heightened in May after the authorities were forced to evacuate the entire south of the island to safer areas in the north after another big rumble.

Savage’s — sometimes angry — denials did nothing to dampen the speculation. Neither did Meade’s often repeated position that election was not a priority as government focused its attention on keeping the population safe.

Bothered by the apparently close relations between Savage and Meade’s administration, opposition forces have been suggesting he would use his authority and the volcanic activity, to keep the government in power.

But an announcement in June that he would appoint a commission to conduct a survey to determine whether the people of Montserrat wanted elections held as scheduled and Meade’s support for the idea, again stirred Opposition suspicions.

Independent council member, David Brandt, is also insisting that elections should be held. Bertram Osbourne agrees. “We feel that although the situation is difficult, elections can be held,” he says.

Former Chief Minister, Bramble, describes the commission as “a waste of time.

The commission reported last week that 54 percent of Montserrations still living in the island want the elections held as scheduled, while 37 percent favour a postponement.

Up to last year July before the Soufriere Hills woke up after a long century’s sleep, the 102 sq km island had a population of 11,000. Since then the number has dropped to 8,000.

At that time the noise, the shaking of the earth and sulphuric fumes sent some 1,200 inhabitants scurrying to safety in neighbouring countries, while others took up an invitation from the British government which still has responsible for the administration of the colony and relocated there.

With Savage having indicated that he would go along with whatever seemed to be the wishes of the majority of Montserratians, it now remains for Meade to recommend a date for the election. He is expected to do so shortly after the Oct. 7 dissolution of the Legislative Council.

Following the governor’s proclamation of an election date, only the much feared “major explosion” leading to a mass evacuation of the island will force a postponement of the polls.

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