Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-ST.VINCENT: Constitutional Reform Takes Back Seat For Now

Patrick Smikle

KINGSTOWN, Jun 16 1998 (IPS) - You would not know it from listening to speeches at political rallies which were staged almost nightly as the election campaign moved to a climax.

It was not obvious from news reports on the campaign. But both the ruling New Democratic Party (NDP) and the opposition Unity Labour Party (ULP), one of which will form the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines after Monday’s poll, agree that constitutional and political reform is one of the most fundamental issues facing this multi-island Caribbean state.

The main issues presented by the NDP in its campaigning were the political and administrative experience of James Mitchell and the government he has led since 1984. Emphasising the need for continuity, Mitchell said he wanted one more term (this would be his fourth) to complete certain key projects. Chief of these is the upgrading of the airport on mainland St. Vincent into an international facility.

“This airport will be my legacy to St. Vincent,… I want this to be my going away present to the people of the mainland of St. Vincent,” he said recently as he announced that two-thirds of the 60 million dollars needed for the project had been identified.

However, it was this very track record that the opposition used as it called on the country’s just over 71,000 registered voters to remove the government from office.

The ULP distributed a facsimile of High Court papers charging that “James Mitchell and his NDP Administration did commit the following acts of political treachery and mismanagement thereby ruining the economy of the country and causing great suffering and poverty.”

It listed 109 charges of mismanagement of government projects, accusations of corruption, allegations of victimisation and complaints of failure to keep election promises, one of these being the promise to build an international airport.

These and other issues such as crime, jobs, the state of the economy and the ability of either party to lead the country into the next century, were the main subjects of platform speeches, radio broadcasts and news reports.

However both parties agree that for St. Vincent and the Grenadines to develop and prosper in the new millennium there is a need to revisit the constitution it adopted when it moved from semi-colonial status to full independence.

Chairman of the ruling, NDP Parnell Campbell, sparked public debate last December, declaring in the House of Assembly that unless the country’s main political parties could “cooperate in making changes to the political system,” he would leave politics after the next elections.

He voiced concerns about the adversarial nature of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy St. Vincent had inherited from Britain, with its entrenched opposition, saying the system wasted scarce human resources as it marginalised those in opposition.”The current system cannot do St. Vincent and the Grenadines any good in the next millennium,” he said.

Campbell, who was Deputy Prime Minister and Mitchell’s heir apparent until a scandal involving unsecured loans from an offshore bank forced his resignation from the cabinet, made no specific proposals. But he made it clear he was thinking of more than constitutional reform. “We have to talk about basic systemic political reform,” he said, “a reformation of attitudes.”

The opposition ULP which had been having internal discussions about constitutional reform, and whose Deputy Leader Dr. Ralph Gonsalves had made speeches in St. Vincent and other Caribbean countries calling for a new approach to governance, attacked Campbell on his lack of specifics and accused him of opportunism.

Gonsalves told IPS that Campbell’s “belated concern about the marginalisation of the opposition is not unconnected with the fact that his party will shortly be in that position.”

A subsequent ULP statement noted that Campbell had been the secretary of a committee appointed by Mitchell in 1985 to examine the constitution and that the report of that Committee had never been made public. It noted also that he had served as Attorney General for more than 10 years (longer than anyone else) without ever putting constitutional and political reform on the national agenda.

However, Campbell, who like Gonsalves is a former member of St. Vincent’s now defunct socialist-oriented United People’s Movement (UPM), seemed not to have been dismayed by the criticism, following up his comments in parliament with a radio commentary. But again no specifics.

Others have filled that breach, even as they too state or imply that the former Attorney General is being opportunistic.

Renrick Rose, also a former UPM, member credited Campbell with having “belatedly rediscovered the philosophies of his past”, acknowledged that he may have been trying to distract attention from his party’s performance in government but commended him for “putting the issue of a transformation of the democratic system back on the public agenda.”

Said Rose… “without transforming the system we can never ever ensure lasting benefits for our people.”

This concern with transforming the political system to facilitate the involvement of ordinary people and creating benefits for them, has dominated the debate.

Gonsalves has been talking about evolving a system which facilitates greater “people involvement in the affairs of government.” He says the old “commandist” style of politics where a strong party or governmental leader dictates both the style and substance of governance, is no longer relevant or useful.

“Consensus building must now become the centrepiece of governance,” he has said in speeches in Grenada and Barbados, noting that this approach “requires, among other things, a different kind of a leader, a leader who can lead with clarity and who listens carefully.”

Former NDP government minister, Burton Williams, who now leads the People’s Working Party, is calling for the re-introduction of a local government system as a way of facilitating “greater people involvement” in the running of the country’s affairs.

The St. Vincent and the Grenadines Human Rights Association wants to reform the constitution “to drastically reduce the extreme powers of the Prime Minister.” As an example of these extreme powers the Association’s President Victor Cuffy cites the Prime Minister’s right to dissolve parliament and call new elections whenever he chooses.

He suggests the adoption of the U.S. system of fixed elections. Another area of concern to the Human Rights Association is the judicial system. In addition to calling for the system to be upgraded and modernised, the Association also wants a constitutional guarantee of legal aid for those persons who cannot afford legal representation.

Political Scientist, Dr. Adrian Fraser says any mechanism for changing the constitution must have built into it, ways of incorporating the views of ordinary people.

He suggests the setting up of a constitutional committee “which would be mandated to go throughout the length and breadth of the country allowing the politicians to hear the views of the people, and use those views as guides for implementing the necessary changes.”

Senior Lecturer at the Barbados campus of the University of the West Indies, Dr. Neville Duncan, a Jamaican, was drawn into the fray, when he made comments about the need for Caribbean governments to give more power to the people as a prerequisite to ensuring more efficient management of natural resources.

Pointing out that regional governments have traditionally chosen to focus on economic growth rather than social development and environmental protection, he called for the creation of new governmental structures and for a greater focus on social sector reform as well as community development and ecological concerns.

This can only be done if governments draw on the resources of community based non-governmental organisations as well as business groupings and labour organisations, Duncan said.

Despite the constitutional and political reform issue being given some prominence in the ULP manifesto, the debate was pushed into the background as the country focused on the more immediate electoral concerns.

However, given the consensus that there is need for change, it should not be too long after Monday’s poll, that it again occupies a position of prominence on the national agenda.

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