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PEOPLE & THINGS: Will St Kitts poll buck trend?


PEOPLE & THINGS: Will St Kitts poll buck trend?

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TOMORROW, St Kitts and Nevis will be the venue for the mother of all Caribbean elections which is so identified for several reasons.

It is ironic that this election comes just after the fifth anniversary of the January 25, 2010 election which would make it “due” now.  

In reality, however, this election is overdue by more than two years since a motion of no confidence was filed in December of 2012 that in theory had sufficient support to bring down the government.  

In fairness to the Labour party and Dr Denzil Douglas, his predecessor Dr Kennedy Simmonds also managed to dodge the debating of a similar vote filed in 1981 by then Labour leader Lee Moore for three years.

This is a most curious tradition which stands in direct contrast to the situation elsewhere in the Commonwealth where convention dictates that a vote of no-confidence takes precedence over all other matters.

As such in Barbados we have seen such votes debated quickly and one even brought down the Sandiford administration in 1994. In Grenada Tillman Thomas survived one such vote, which was debated quickly, and opted to dissolve Parliament before debating the second that he knew would fail.  

St Kitts and Nevis therefore has now earned the dubious distinction as the Caribbean state where the device that epitomises parliamentary scrutiny of the executive does not work.  In the Simmonds case, his delay was not punished by an electoral defeat since he won the 1984 election and we anxiously await the outcome of tomorrow’s poll to see whether Douglas’ delay will also be rewarded.

The scenario in St Kitts and Nevis is also peculiar because this election comes on the heels of a major fracture in the Labour party which once commanded all eight seats on the mainland.

This is also not unusual in the Caribbean since such a fracture has given birth to the NDP in Barbados and Jamaica. In this instance, however, the departure of the two most senior ministers in an administration holding six seats is fundamentally different and potentially more devastating.

In the case of Barbados and Jamaica the NDP initiatives failed. however, it is noteworthy that the two Labour dissidents have joined forces with two separate opposition parties forming a majority of six in what is classified as an accommodation.

The accommodation is the variety of coalition which was employed with devastating effect in Trinidad and Tobago recently.

In that case, the electoral target was considerably more challenging than it is on this occasion so again we look anxiously to see how this election either confirms or bucks the trend.

The other factor which distinguishes this election is the fact that both the Prime Minister and his Labour party are heading into electorally uncharted waters. Douglas is in pursuit of his fifth term, having won the four previous consecutive elections and this is an achievement which is unknown to this region in its post-independence context.

Certainly there was Eric Williams who had he not died would have matched Douglas’ twenty year reign and might have won a fifth term in 1986, but generally our leaders seem to max out at three consecutive terms or 15 years as in the case of P.J. Patterson, V. C. Bird and Keith Mitchell.

My views on the desirability of a leader serving more than two-terms are well-known but this issue is more about achievability than desirability and this is clearly a very difficult political objective to achieve even in the best of times politically.

In the context of a voting population of just under 40 000 arranged into 11 constituencies where in 2010 the victory margin in two seats was less than 50, the non-resident voter can clearly make a difference.

In St Kitts and Nevis they have recognised this category of voter and it is the custom to facilitate their participation by whatever expensive means are necessary.

These voters live overseas and are often not sensitive to the local machinations, but will presumably vote for whoever brings them home in large numbers and clearly the government has an advantage in this regard.

Having said this, it was interesting to note the behaviour of this constituency in the recent Nevis local election, where they appeared to vote against their sponsors and one wonders if these voters might behave similarly on this occasion.

It has been suggested that the Privy Council ruling against the government in respect of the boundaries will determine the fate of Labour and while I am not sure of its singular importance, I am confident it will be a major factor. It is believed that these changes would have impacted electorally since Labour intended to shift support locally in a way that strengthens weak seats and makes strategic concessions.

In addition the changes would also have created some amount of confusion within Team Unity since the strongest seat held by the PAM [People’s Action Movement] leader would have been weakened in favour of its neighbouring constituency contested by the former leader. As fate would have it, the Privy Council has ruled against these changes in a way that will have major implications that need to be pursued separately.

It is clear that this decision represents a major defeat for Labour and it is difficult to see how this will not represent a major psychological blow to the government and boost to the opposition.

Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).