ST. VINCENT: – When Vincentians go to the polls tomorrow, Monday, Dec. 13, to elect a new government, they will be, according to social commentator Jomo Thomas, voting in “probably the most important election” since the multi-island nation of 110,000 people gained political independence from Britain in 1979.
The polls will be a straight fight between the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP), which is seeking a third consecutive term in office, and the main opposition New Development Party (NDP) even though the Green Party has nominated candidates in 13 of the 15 seats at stake.
Supervisor of Elections Sylvia Findlay-Scrubb says that 101,052 persons are eligible to cast ballots in the election coming nearly four months before the constitutional deadline of March 2011.
She said the Electoral Office is gearing for “reasonably high turnout” and has brushed aside reports of voter irregularities even before the first ballot is cast.
These 101,052 citizens, Thomas says, not only have the power to decide the fate of the nation over the next five years.
“Maybe, these elections may have more far reaching implications. They may decide the life chances, especially of the poor and the youth, for the next generation,” Thomas said in his piece in his column in The Vincentian this week.
Renwick Rose, another analyst makes a similar case, saying the elections in his column in Friday’s Searchlight.
He says: “The choice in Monday’s election must be based on taking our country forward, on enlightening our people, on providing vision and leadership, on strengthening social programmes which have tremendously benefited the poor, the young, those with disabilities, in promoting a wider social dialogue, in creating a solid platform on which our children can build.”
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Political leader of the ULP and Prime Minister, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, pitches the NDP as backward and lacking ideas to take the nation forward and tells voters that the party, which turned 35 this month and governed for the 17 years ending 2001, will roll back much of the progress the nation has made over the past nine years.
SVG has felt the brunt of the global economic crisis with economic activity contracted by 0.6 per cent in 2008 and 1 per cent in 2009, following an average growth of about 8 per cent in 2006 to 2007.
But Gonsalves says that overall, his administration has practically doubled the country’s wealth, created 10,000 new jobs and cut poverty significantly among other achievements.
Gonsalves, 64, further says that NDP president and Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace, 65, is too old to begin a government, although Eustace was Prime Minister during the last five months of the NDP administration and also served as minister of finance.
The Prime Minister further says that leadership is a key issue in the elections and paints Eustace as negative and pessimistic, earning him the pseudonym “Mr Negative”.
But community leader Oscar Allen, created quite a stir this week, when, in a letter in Midweek Searchlight, he agrees that Eustace is neither a Gonsalves nor a Sir James Mitchell, the NDP founder who was prime minister for 17 years.
Allen, who is chairman of the People Movement for Change, the socio-political group of which Thomas is General Secretary, challenges Vincentians to ask themselves why Gonsalves or Sir James should be “our models or our criteria for leadership”.
“It is clear that Mr Negative has said ‘No’ to the temptation to practice a pompous dazzle-the-eye commander politics. … He is trying a paradigm shift away from 25 + more years of ‘one-manism’,” Allen says in his op-ed piece.
“I am fully convinced that our social and political landscape needs a Mr Negative, even a ‘team negative’ to call us away from tribal psychology, loss of tolerance, low productivity and ‘me and my interest’ first, second and third, others last,” Allen says.
He however says: “Election Day will not bring those changes to us, but those who say that Mr. Negative has nothing to offer should think again.”
Eustace would undoubtedly hope that Vincentians agree with Allen and maintain the trend in the Caribbean, where every government that has gone to the electorate after losing a referendum also lost the elections.
NDP spirits are high after the results of the referendum on proposed changes to the Constitution, which voters rejected by 55.6 per cent to 43.1 per cent last year.
But local analysts warn that those returns may not necessarily translate into a general election, where the issues are different.
The NDP says that Gonsalves and his “social-democratic” government has ruined the economy, caused the private sector to shrink, and are too close to leftist nations such as Venezuela, Libya, and Iran.
The party laments the increasing size of the state and says governments should not boast about the buildings, roads and other infrastructural development because this is a default role of the state.
Each party tells voters that it is more capable to respond to the challenges confronting the nation that is constructing an international airport and where the main hospital tells patients that they will have to pay private healthcare providers for routine tests such as urinalysis.
The ministries of health and agriculture have been flagged for special audits this year.
In August, the Director of Audit in uncovered misappropriation of funds under a Cuban healthcare project and Gonsalves last week ordered a probe of an agricultural programme amidst reports that officials there bought exorbitantly priced equipment from a company owned by the permanent secretary.
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The ULP, in its manifesto, released last Sunday, outlined the ten points of focus if elected to a third term.
Among these policies, the party lists wealth and job creation, education, poverty reduction, housing, health and wellness, information and communications technology, and airport development.
“…we are offering, in addition to continuity, change to take our nation to the next, higher level of development,” Gonsalves said, adding that the NDP has “wasted its last ten years in opposition”.
After weeks of much anticipation and criticism for the late release, the NDP released its manifesto on Thursday.
“This includes all of our proposals, all of our policies and programmes, whether it be health, whether it be agriculture, whether it be tourism, whether it be crime, whatever. … We have programmes and policies, which we think will bring benefit to the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Eustace says of the document.
He says that the manifesto outlines 10 foreign investment projects which Eustace said will generate millions in investment and 20,000 jobs over the next two years and which Gonsalves said are “fiction”.
The four weeks since the election date was announced was characterised by Gonsalves and Eustace blaming each other for not condemning acts of violence reportedly committed by their respective supporters.
There have been threats of law suits and one court battle, which ended on Friday with four private complaint of voter fraud against Luke Browne, the ULP’s candidate to come up against Arnhim Eustace in East Kingstown, being dismissed.
Dominican Senior Counsel Anthony Astaphan, a lawyer for Gonsalves, the ULP and the ULP administration, has said that several persons will be sued after the elections.
The suits stem from comments reportedly defaming Gonsalves, including a video in which Vincentian-Canadian human rights lawyer Margaret Parsons details an alleged unwanted sexual encounter with Gonsalves in 2008.
Parsons’ case, along with that of a female member of the Prime Minister’s security detail who accused him of rape, was discontinued by the Director of Public Prosecutions for a lack of evidence.
Astaphan’s statements come even as Vincentians say that he is interfering in their internal affairs.
On Friday, Prime Minister of Dominica Roosevelt Skerritt, in a call to a radio station, said that Gonsalves “genuinely cares about people” and defended Caribbean countries’ participation in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) that Venezuela is promoting as the alternative to the US-led Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
The NDP has said that it will repudiate ALBA but Skeritt says “Anybody in the Caribbean who says that our countries should remove themselves from ALBA is unfortunate and really is just trying to [bring] that kind of fear in people’s mind to give people the impression that it is a dangerous organisation, it is something that we should all condemn.”
Political observers have dismissed Ivan O’Neal and the 13 other candidates of the Green Party as non-starters, with newspaper man Thomas describing the outfit as a “farce” which “can only cause embarrassment to Vincentian politics”.
Election officials in Kingstown say all systems are go for the elections although the NDP said Saturday that it had not received a response from the Supervisor of Elections to a request to inspect the ballot paper and the ink ahead of the polls.
Lawyers for the ULP, also on Saturday, wrote to the Commissioner of Police and the Supervisor of Elections on the heel of statements by the NDP and their lawyers to prevent person suspected of registering illegally from voting on Election Day.
The lawyers say the statement “are in substance threats”, nothing that legally, “a registered voter cannot be restrained from voting on Election Day”.
Polls open at 7 am and close at 5 pm and Vincentians are expecting result from individual polling stations as early as 7 pm and the full outcome of the election by midnight although the winner is likely to be known before then.
The elections are being observed by the teams from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Organisation of American States (OAS), the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, in addition to the local National Monitoring and Consultative Mechanism.