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Democracy well and alive in St Vincent

May 10, 2000
By Raffique Shah

Unrest that enveloped St Vincent over the past few weeks must have brought a sense of relief to everyone in the Caribbean.

Only last week, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, upon returning from Caricom consultations on the impasse, which was marked by daily anti-government demonstrations by opposition parties and trade unions, said he felt the situation there could turn violent. It is to the credit of that country's Prime Minister, James "Son" Mitchell, that he firstly agreed to have Caricom mediate in the crisis, and then he gave in to the protesters' call for fresh elections two years before they are constitutionally due.

Already, we are hearing cries of "foul" over what is seen as a "caving in" by Mitchell, coming from other Caricom leaders. Mitchell said his Caricom colleagues were "concerned about undemocratic means of removing a government, people in protest forcing a government to immediately resign". Dr Keith Mitchell, Prime Minister of Grenada, is reported to have said: " It would be a dangerous precedent if anyone can have a grievance with a government and just decide to do things that might not be in the best interest of the country." And for his part, Panday said, "Early elections in St Vincent are bad sign for the Caribbean community." Asked by reporters if he feared his UNC government could suffer the same fate as St Vincent's, Panday added, "I can assure you that it won't." he said such unrest showed that opposition parties could "bring down government before the end of their duly elected terms by violence and demonstration." Both Mitchell (K) and Panday no doubt fell under no circumstances should a government that came to power via an election be forced to prorogue Parliament before the end of its five-year term, and call fresh elections.

Let me say that I agree with the time frame of one year set for fresh elections. Any attempt to go to the pools during, or in the immediate aftermath of the near violent state of unrest that erupted in St Vincent, could have turned out to be more volatile than the unrest itself. So those who prevailed on the protesters to allow for "cooling off" period must be commended. And I trust that whatever their feelings towards "Son" Mitchell may be, opposition Leader Ralph Gonzales and his trade union colleagues recognise that Mitchell stands by the democratic principles enshrined in that country's constitution. More than that, he was prepared to stand by the spirit of the constitution. He could have chosen instead to use the police force against the demonstrators, or to summon help from the Caricom's regional security force, which many of his colleagues appeared only to willing to do.

There are several lessons to be learnt from the St. Vincent experience. Firstly, as I understand it, what triggered the demonstrations was the Government's decisions to approve higher pensions and gratuities for parliamentarians. That hike, I imagine, must have come in the midst of the Government's claim that it could not increase the salaries of ordinary public sector employees, which will have angered trade unions and their members.

A similar move by the Panday administration was thwarted, not by protest by trade unions, but because the PM wanted the measure, which Patrick Manning and his colleagues refused to do.

But even more important lessons has to do with the term of office of an elected government, and how any such government can be removed from power. Panday and other politicians mislead the population (and are probably themselves misled) into believed that under our systems of government and elections, a government is elected for five years. This is not so. A government is elected for not more than five years. Check the relevant section of the constitution ( I do not have a copy at hand so I can't quote the section ) lest you think this "bush" lawyer is writing "bull". This misconception has always been at the root of much political evil in this country. In 1970 when tens of thousands of people protested against the Dr Eric Williams Government, Williams absolutely refused to treat with the demonstrators. Instead, he unleashed the heavy hand of the law, and by the time he declared a State of Emergency, he was prepared to use the added force of the military against the protesters. Not once did he give a thought to calling fresh elections.

It was instructive that when the next general election was called (in 1970), it was boycotted by the opposition parties, and the results showed the PNM winning all 36 seats. With 28 per cent of the electorate voting for the party. That scenario would repeat itself by 1990, by which time the NAR had lost it's mandate because of the split in the party. Panday, who had triggered the split, repeatedly called on ray Robinson to resign and call fresh elections. Our memories tend to be not only short but also selective.

In order for any democratic system of government to work, there must be instruments in place for a government to resign from office and call fresh elections if it is clear that a majority of the electors have lost confidence in it.

Winning an election does not and must not mean an automatic five years in office. What if the newly elected government turns autocratic, or becomes corrupt, within one year? Must citizens wait for five years to remove the Government from office? The spirit of the Constitution certainly does not envisage this dictatorial possibility.

That element in St. Vincent's constitution may not have been behind Mitchell agreeing to hold fresh elections in three years. But it is time that people become aware of their rights, and of their responsibility to ensure that no government insists on doing as it damn well pleases, saying to the electorate; "You will have your chance to remove me in five years time!" Such arrogance and ignorance can only fuel the flames of discontent. Which is why Mitchell and those who hammered out the St Vincent accord must be congratulated. In other words of Caricom's chairman, Dr Denzil Douglas, "This is indeed an historical moment, not only for Caricom, not only for the OECS, but for the entire Caribbean." I concur.

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