TAIPEI, Taiwan: – When morning breaks on St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) this Wednesday, Nov. 25, citizens 18 and older will each have an opportunity to mark an “X” that collectively stands to change the country’s history forever.
It has been seven years in coming and Vincentians will vote on the Constitutional Reform Bill 2009 that might replace the one left by departing colonialists 30 years ago.
However, analyst Jomo Thomas said Wednesday’s vote might turn out to be a referendum on the Unity Labour Party (ULP) administration one year before it faces the populace for a third consecutive term in office.
ULP leader, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, sounded a note that echoed desperation last weekend.
“I am so impressed with the uplifting and healing and uniting message of Busy, that give me the 67 percent and I personally will pay for Busy and his group to come back after the referendum,” he told a gathering at a “Vote Yes” event where the Jamaican artiste performed. (Watch video)
It is the latest promise that the Gonsalves has made to Vincentians during the final week leading up to the vote.
Last week, he also promised a public holiday next Monday, Nov. 30, if the referendum gets the required 67 percent of the votes cast.
Thomas believed that Gonsalves is now faced with the stark realities of political miscalculations that are working against the interest of both the nation and the ULP.
“…[S]ometimes, because you are so punch drunk by power, you don’t always do what might be national interest, which would redound to personal and political interest,” he told I Witness-News on Sunday.
He described as “the worst and most cynical misuse of public funds that I can remember” the EC$6m (US$2.2m) distributed EC$200 (US$74) apiece to the nation’s students last week.
Gonsalves had announced that distribution at independence last month as part of an EC$30m (US$11.1m) “gift” to various categories of citizens.
Thomas said that Vincentians saw through these as “political posturing rather than any real attempts to solve the problems in the country”.
He said the “Vote Yes” and “Vote No” campaigns ran by the government and opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) respectively were both “horrible”.
He however chastised the NDP for running a political campaign that “may redound to their benefit, unfortunately” through “scaremongering” rather than speaking to the issues.
Former prime minister and NDP founder Sir James Mitchell has suggested that the constituency of East Kingstown would be extended to include the two Grenadines seats.
There were also false statements that the new constitution would make Gonsalves prime minister for life, devalue the Eastern Caribbean (EC) Dollar, and pave the way for SVG to transition into a communist state.
“Many of the people who are doing it know better but they are simply descending into politics with the sole interest of derailing constitutional reform,” Thomas said.
But while Thomas believed that the government “made a better effort” to speak to the major elements of the constitution, he said that its arguments were equally emotional.
The Vote Yes camp has trumpeted the inclusion of provisions that will make same-sex marriage unconstitutional and make it easier to execute murderers.
Thomas said that these issues “should not be in the constitution”, a point echoed by journalist Carlos James, who is reading law in London.
“These are non-issues. They are already there in the present constitution. They are already there in the laws of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and we really should not be hearing about these things,” James told I Witness-News on Sunday.
James believed that Vincentians should be discussing the role of the new president and how the proposed human rights, teachers, and parliamentary commissions and the ombudsman will enforce the necessary check and balances on governments.
“At the age of 30, as a nation, we should really try to have a more constructive, a more serious line of argument,” James said.
He believed that both political parties should be putting forward “sensible issues” that advance the country rather than “going back to the old tactics of political persuasion to get people to vote either yes or no”.
James said that the opposition was “too hypocritical” and sent mixed signals on the position they were taking on the reform. He said some NDP parliamentarians boasted privately about the provisions they had included at the last minute but still campaigned against the bill.
He however said that the proposed bill “could have been polished more” but noted that constitutions are “living instruments not fixed in stone”.
While James expects a low turnout on Wednesday, he said there are no issues of grave concern why Vincentians should not vote in favour of the proposed constitution.
“It should be an individual thing where you yourself have a clear enough understanding of what the issues are. And you are going there to vote based on that and not necessarily [what a] political party [says.]”
He believed that the EC$4m (US$1.48m) of tax funds spent on the “Vote Yes” campaign should have been used to allow Vincentians overseas to vote electronically.
Thomas also favoured the bill, saying there wasn’t “any credible single reason that should cause anyone thinking constitutionally” to vote “no”.
He however admitted that with the opposition in “open rebellion”, it was unlikely that the referendum would garner the requisite 67 percent “yes” votes.
Anesia Baptiste and the Thusian Institute for Religious Liberty (TIRL), of which she is Associate Director, have condemned the proposed constitution and have joined with the NDP in calling for a vote “no”.
‘When I study the document in its entirety, I believe that the areas of disagreement are fundamental enough to warrant a vote “no”,” she told I Witness-News on Monday.
She said that “the matter turns on the points of disagreement” and that Gonsalves “refused to bend on certain point” although his government had an opportunity to change the bill during the 90 days between the first and second reading.
Her organisation had called for the reinsertion of “the inalienable rights phrase” in the preamble and for current market value compensation for properties acquired by the state.
The TIRL also believes that there should be no adjustment to the two thirds majority needed to change the constitution neither does it support reducing from 90 to 60 days the time between the readings of future bills.
“The argument about it being hard to get the 66 percent was no argument at all if government would do things the right way,” Baptiste said.
She “refuse[d] to answer in a holistic way” the question about whether the proposed constitution was an improvement on the existing one, noting that one has to vote on everything or nothing.
She mentioned the proposed commissions, saying, “Any constitution having such institutions, properly fleshed out and showing the relevant independence is excellent for any country.
“However, I am being asked to votes yes to those things as well as to other things I don’t agree with … I have to judge the overall document based on the tenets that I have problems with. And, in that regard, I find it is not an improvement.”
But while most Vincentians are caught up with either of the campaigns, some citizens believe that the vote should be postponed to a time when the country is not as politically charged.
Some believe that Gonsalves has pushed ahead with the referendum, using it also to gauge his party’s chances at the next poll.
Thomas said that if the “yes” votes amount to less than the 55 percent that the ULP polled at the December 2005 elections, Gonsalves would have to “think long and hard about calling snap elections”. (Listen to the entire interview with Jomo Thomas)
He was of the view that with the global economic crisis, it was highly unlikely that the ULP would get a third term in office.
This suggestion was made in an open letter to Gonsalves and Eustace from the socio-political group People’s Movement for Change, of which Thomas is a member.
Others have said that Vincentians should follow the example of the Irish, reject the constitution in the first instance and send drafters back to the drawing table, seven years and at least EC$11m (US$4m) after the process started.
Yet others believe that citizens did not have enough time to peruse the document since parliament passed it in early September.
Most objective readers of the proposed constitution would agree that it improves on the existing document. It preserves all existing rights and freedoms and introduces some new ones while reducing the powers of the prime minister and increasing the powers of the leader of the opposition.
Additional major points of departure have been the election of the president by parliament rather than the general population and increasing parliament to 27 members, up from 21.
The Vote No camp has also said that some of the proposals do not effectively reduce the powers of the prime minister, that legislation can take care of the proposed commissions, and that gay-marriage is already illegal.
The descent into the political quagmire might have been accelerated when the ULP gave the groping NDP a chance to exit the process amidst demands that Thomas said were important but unrelated to constitutional reform.
And while Thomas said that the reform exercise has helped SVG by educating the populace about constitutional making and raised constitutional reform on the national and regional agenda, he believed that the country could have gotten more from the undertaking.
“I thought the process was good. I thought we learnt a lot but it was unfortunate that the political parties, in my mind, acted more in a personal, partisan electoral sense rather than defending and trying to honour the national interest,” he said.