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Stuart facing election cliff

Harold Hoyte

Stuart facing election cliff

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All Barbados should be indebted to Prime Minister Freundel Stuart for sparing us a Christmas filled with political jug-jug, partisan stuffing and lots of yard turkeys and lame ducks strutting around our villages and terraces, promising hams and hampers. The holiday period was truly one of quiet calm and soulful introspection, as the holy Christian holiday ought to be.
Although I suspect the Prime Minister’s intentions were more politically self-serving than seeking selflessly to afford the country a peaceful recess to share goodwill among men, he deserves a belated toast of well chilled, home-made Bajan sorrel.
But 2013 has dawned and it portends important political decision-making by the electorate. Stuart now finds himself indebted to country and self to hold the election in the first quarter of this year.
Voters are entitled to the opportunity to exercise their plebiscite to elect a Government following the expiration of the most recent five-year mandate. On that occasion, it was given to his predecessor, David Thompson, of late memory, in 2008 on January 15. This is now a debt whose payment Stuart cannot much longer postpone. He is on the edge of an election cliff.
Having squandered the opportunity to call an election in 2011/2012, or earlier at the time of Thompson’s passing in October 2010, Stuart has eliminated the surprise element from his arsenal, giving all the new candidates, particularly the Opposition Barbados Labour Party’s (BLP) 12 neophytes, ample opportunity to complete their canvassing and boost their fund-raising. Only an Opposition political party in deep slumber would not be ready to engage in battle by this date, the fifth anniversary of the last election.
Two days hence – Tuesday, January 15 – will mark five years since the people of Barbados last went to the polls. It is the first time we are marking a five-year anniversary of an election while the victorious party remains in power without seeking a new endorsement.
What now are Stuart’s narrowed options?
He has the choice of claiming another 28 days or so in Government, serving the full legal term of five years from the first sitting of Parliament on February 12, 2008, after which it will automatically be dissolved. Even then, he need not immediately call an election.
He also has another 90 days thereafter to mid-May during which time he may announce an election date of his choosing.
Stuart would be politically unwise to trespass on that extra time in circumstances where over 60 per cent of people polled by CADRES last September said then it was time to call elections.
There is also the fact that with the two recent credit rating agency downgrades, Government’s options might be constricted and any bitter medicine which might have to be prescribed or administered are better left until after elections.
The members and supporters of the BLP are anxiously calling for an election because they recognize that by procrastinating, Stuart has backed himself into a dark little cul-de-sac. Government has been pushing important late legislation through unusually regular meetings of the House of Assembly and Senate; and during the past week, the last four new constituency offices of Democratic Labour Party (DLP) candidates were opened, one each on Wednesday and Friday instead of the usual celebrated weekend affairs they have been.
That tells me time is drawing nigh, Stuart has run out of weekends and is not contemplating an election too far into that dangerous 90-day stretch after February 12.
Yet, he remains amazingly cool about the scenario, although during two appearances last weekend in St Andrew and St Joseph, he gleefully spoke about impending elections which must surely now be on his mind.
Oh, how I wish I could read that mind of his!
Brings to thought the words of Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind:
Imagine Freundel Stuart singing to Owen Arthur:
If you could read my mind, love,
What a tale my thoughts could tell.
Just like an old time movie,
’Bout a ghost from a wishing well . . .
But stories always end,
And if you read between the lines,
You’d know that I’m just tryin’ to understand
The feelings that you lack . . . .
You see, Stuart is hemmed in by the legal requirement for Estimates to be laid in Parliament (not approved) – according to Section 108 of the Constitution, which states “The Minister responsible for finance shall, before the end of each financial year, cause to be prepared annual estimates of revenue and expenditure for public services during the financial year, which?SHALL?BE?LAID before the House of Assembly.
This must happen before the start of the new financial year on April 1. There will be no Parliament in existence to approve this important document after February 12.
In order for Stuart to achieve his March 31 target for laying the Estimates, given the fact that Parliament automatically ceases on February 12, means they must be laid within the next four weeks since the House will be unable to meet thereafter except on recall at the instant of the Governor General acting in a state of emergency or war.
The following section of the Constitution makes interesting reading:
61(5) “If, between a dissolution of Parliament and the next ensuing general election of members to the House of Assembly, an emergency arises of such a nature that, in the opinion of the Prime Minister, it is necessary for the two Houses or either of them to be summoned before that general election can be held, the Governor General, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, may summon the two Houses of the preceding Parliament, and that Parliament shall thereupon be deemed (except for the purposes of Section 62) not to have been dissolved but shall be deemed (except as aforesaid) to be dissolved on the date on which the polls are held in the next ensuing general election.”
I am not sure the Constitution anticipated our 2013 dilemma in which our Prime Minister is caught between the devil (overdue election date) and the deep blue sea (mandatory laying of Estimates by April 1) as an “emergency”.
It is nigh impossible for Government to finalize, print, circulate, and lay a complete set of Estimates within the next 30 days.
The process of reviewing ministerial budgets has only just begun and this takes at least three weeks of intense meetings at Bay Street with several heads of departments and accounting officers.
The Minister of Finance (or his nominee) is required to meet with all ministries and examine their proposed budgets and adjust them in accordance with Government’s overall ability to meet those expenditures. If this process is rushed, and I would caution against such given our tenuous medium term fiscal targets, it cannot reach Parliament before the end of January since this usually voluminous Estimates document has to be printed and laid.
But it cannot be worth it to circumvent the customary practice of seeking parliamentary debate and approval before April 1.
Assuming it is now not feasible to get this tidily done in a timely manner, Stuart will have to call the general election early enough for a newly elected Parliament to debate and approve the Estimates in the traditional manner by the end of the financial year.
He therefore has to hold elections by the end of the first week of March at the very, very latest.
Given that there is about a 24-day hiatus between the proclamation of the election and election day, Stuart has to be looking at making an announcement within the next week or two, but certainly not later than February 8. He could even do it this week.
That would take campaigning into the period of Valentine’s Day when the colour of red (the colour of the BLP) dominates. And it would give us an election during the season of Lent – again unprecedented in our history. Would the Prime Minister, who was himself a St Philip church pastor in an earlier incarnation, be contemplating this? I wonder. In Grenada, where I believe elections will be announced this week, the Christian Council has warned against having an election campaign during the Lenten Season.
If Stuart ignores this stricture, I suspect we will be going to the polls around March 1.
But he will be aware of the foreboding of idus martiae (the ides of March). Students of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar will know only too well that according to Roman tradition, March 1 is not the ides but the kalends of March.
One thing is sure; Stuart cannot postpone the election kalendas graecas (indefinitely).
Let us all, including an anxious BLP, just wait.
• Harold Hoyte is Editor Emeritus of THE?NATION.