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Election precursor?


Peter Wickham

Election precursor?

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Local Government elections seldom generate the same level of interest as general elections throughout the Caribbean. However, two recent electoral excursions should cause governments and people across this region to pay attention to the message that the electorate is sending.
Reference is drawn to the recent elections in Tobago and Nevis which, curiously enough, were held within days of each other. The Tobago poll was “due” this year, while Nevis’ was precipitated by a court decision which declared the election of one of the three successful Nevis Reformation Party (NRP) candidates “null and void” and the premier exercised his option to call fresh general elections at the local level.
The fact that the Nevis situation was “optional” is perhaps the extent to which the essential message of these two elections is different. In both instances they were to facilitate placement in local government assemblies and in both the relationship between the national and local government is complex.
In the case of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), it would need to be distinguished from the Nevis Island Assembly (NIA) to the extent that Trinidad and Tobago is a unitary state, while St Kitts and Nevis is a federation; hence Nevis has its own premier, with Tobago being effectively “run” by a chief secretary. The irony of this arrangement is that Tobago is larger (a population of 50 000 versus 12 000) and more remote than Nevis, and as such, a federation of Trinidad and Tobago would seem infinitely more logical than is the case with Nevis which is almost swimming distance from St Kitts.
Tobago’s demographic profile is very different to that of Trinidad since the population there is almost all Afro-Tobagonian.
Its politics has evolved differently and while the People’s National Movement (PNM) has maintained a presence there, the other political force in Trinidad, the ULF/UNC, has struggled to attract sufficient support to remain alive there. More recently a political organisation known as the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) established a parliamentary “foothold” and this organisation had a causal relationship with the People’s Partnership (PP) in Trinidad.
It is also ironic that this relationship appears to have been responsible for Tobagonians’ brief interest in the TOP and is now also likely to be linked to their rejection of the same organisation after one term (in opposition).
An appreciation of the fluid nature of Trinidadian politics helps to place this in perspective since the PNM has been having challenges largely on account of its leadership for some years now. I have always argued that Trinidadian politics is dominated by a single credible political force known as the PNM and anytime an alternative government takes office, it does so on “probation”.
Hence the TOP’s ascendance was perhaps reflective of Tobagonian experimentation with alternative government.
Similarly, this absolute rejection of the TOP can only be interpreted as a signal to the PP that Trinidadians are not happy with that government and a similar fate awaits that governing coalition unless it drastically changes the way it does business.
The St Kitts and Nevis scenario is even more complex since there are entirely different political parties on both islands and one of them (the NRP) was originally part of a coalition government with the now opposition People’s Action Movement (PAM). This same entity is now in an informal coalition with the St Kitts and Nevis Labour party (SKNLP), while the other Nevis party, the Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM), has previously expressed a disinterest in anything but local (NIA) government. The complications are further exacerbated by virtue of the small number of seats in Parliament and the fact that Nevis-based parties have traditionally occupied the opposition benches and assumed that role in that parliamentary arrangement.
St Kitts and Nevis is therefore one of the few places that adheres to the Westminster tradition where the government has looked to the opposition to fulfil the role of deputy speaker and where the leader of the opposition is not necessarily the prime minister in waiting.
Worse yet, it is now likely that the leader of the opposition will shortly be assuming ministerial responsibilities in the Nevis local government and would therefore cooperate with the federal government in that role, but assume an adversarial role once he steps into the federal Parliament.
Notwithstanding the complexity, the simple fact is that this past week Nevis had its local government elections and the political pendulum swung in favour of the CCM and away from the NRP. There are five seats in the NIA and in the past the NRP held three and has now lost one, which means the loss of a government.
The constituencies in Nevis are so small and margins of win so minute that a shift of 200 votes is nothing short of a landslide. This is effectively what occurred last week and as a result, the federal leader of the opposition won his seat and is now a member of both the federal and local assembly.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the federal leader of the opposition recently led a vote of no-confidence against the federal government and since that time, there has been much talk of a unity government on the mainland. It is also striking that the loose coalition between the Nevis and St Kitts government (SKNLP/NRP) is vaguely reminiscent of the relationship between the COP and TOP.
CADRES has over time noticed that the residents of all four of these islands support governmental co-operation and unity. However, it is equally clear that local government elections are effective “primaries” for the national/federal elections. As such, the clearest expression of a population’s concern about national governance would be their rejection of the local coalition partner.
It has often been said that a day is a long time in politics and one presumes that in both Basseterre and Port f Spain, the national governments have properly read the signals sent and would at this time be taking the necessary steps to “wet down their own houses” since the neighbour’s is clearly on fire.
• Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).

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