PEOPLE & THINGS: Opposition politics
The jury is still out on the extent to which the Antigua Labour Party’s (ALP) White March held last Friday was successful or not. However, this protest, along with the previous marches, raises questions about the modus operandi of opposition parties across the Caribbean.
These questions must be anchored within a perspective on what the Westminster system assumes the opposition “should” be doing while it awaits its “call” to government. There are two perspectives that emerge on this question, and the more conservative one assumes that the opposition should be a relatively passive “watchdog” on the government.
The system designates the opposition as “loyal” to Her Majesty in the same way the government is also loyal to her. Moreover, the system entirely disembowels the opposition, leaving it with little real power to do anything meaningful that can obstruct the government in the course of its work.
This systemic confluence of constitutional letter and spirit presents a conservative argument that an opposition should not have the power, nor desire to “bring down” a government since the people will hand a deserving opposition the government when it believes its time has come.
The flip side of this conservative proposition argues that the opposition needs to “massage” public opinion to bring about change through any constitutional means.
The five-year parliamentary term is seen as an outer limit in this context and an aggressive opposition should actively promote the conditions under which people might be inclined to dispense with a government earlier if the opportunity arises.
The most extreme proponent of this perspective would argue that a good opposition would disrupt the operations of government to the point where the country becomes ungovernable and the government is forced to return to the polls. Our system does not provide for any recall mechanism; however, it could be argued that the possibility of this type of action is the Westminster version of the recall mechanism.
In practical terms there have been very few instances across the Caribbean where governments have been brought down by oppositions. However, the ULP case of 1998/1999 comes very close. In this regard, (now) Prime Minister Ralph Gonzalves associated himself with a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that demonstrated publicly against the NDP government that won an unpopular government in 1998. These demonstrations were clearly effective, the country was not governable and this forced the NDP back to the polls in 2001.
Years later a different set of circumstances forced the 1994 DLP Government back to the polls after Owen Arthur brought a successful vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Erskine Sandiford.
These two instances are however among the few where governments have been brought down, and this region is littered with several other less stellar examples where oppositions appear to be becoming increasingly desperate to replace their governments and are adopting tactics which our system does not anticipate. One opposition strategy that has become popular is the reliance on legal loopholes and complexities when elections fail to deliver results.
Opposition parties in St Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, Jamaica and Antigua have attempted to exploit such “facilities” with varying degrees of success.
The fact that we all have a high regard for the law implies that these initiatives cannot be easily dismissed as opposition mischief. Ironically, there are few instances where such legal initiatives have actually reversed the will of the populace as expressed in an election.
The other category of opposition activity that has become more popular is the public protest. Reference has already been made to the successful NGO/ULP protests of 1998. However there are several other national protests that have not been as successful.
Noteworthy among them is the aforementioned ALP White March which attempted to capture the non-political spirit of the 1998 St Vincent protest, but has thus far failed to bring the UPP government to its knees. The similar ALP movement received an impetus from the close result in the previous election and some unforced electoral errors.
Neither the court nor the population is convinced that the government should be given to the opposition, but the opposition continues to battle in the streets and clash with the government.
Prior to the last election, the St Kitts PAM battled both in the streets and the courts and won important legal battles, but nonetheless lost the election. Ironically, the St Vincent NDP now seems set to follow in a similar path to the one that led it away from office in 2001. This party provoked a parliamentary confrontation two weeks ago and will presumably take to the streets shortly in pursuit of its objectives.
These instances raise questions regarding the permissible lengths to which an opposition should go as it attempts to precipitate early elections. Certainly its right to engage such campaigns is not questioned, but one needs to question the extent to which an opposition that behaves like the NDP is overstepping its constitutional rights and abandoning its obligation to lend critical support to the duly elected government.
Governments are elected to Parliament and designated to manage the executive. Oppositions are also elected to Parliament and expected to watch over the executive from that “perch”. If therefore this “perch” is abandoned in preference for the more rancorous street protest, it is reasonable to ask if the opposition has reinterpreted or misunderstood its role.