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PEOPLE & THINGS: The political earthquake


PEOPLE & THINGS: The political earthquake

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DURING THE 2004 St Kitts and Nevis general election, I stated that the St Kitts and Nevis Labour Party (SKNLP) was so strong that it would take a political earthquake to unseat them and this comment has followed me across this region since then.  

It was based on up-to-date poll data and reflected a temporary strength that was misunderstood. It is therefore now fortuitous that I can discuss the extent to which what transpired over the past five years amounts to a political earthquake of the more evolutionary variety.

Going into the 2005 election, the SKNLP had 65 per cent of the total popular vote on the mainland, while the opposition PAM held 35 per cent and no seats. This was a unique position of political strength and since CADRES polls did not suggest the needed swing of 15 per cent would materialise, the political earthquake comment was justified.  

The reality since then has, however been interesting since the PAM did gain a seat coming out of the 2004 election and increased its total popular support to 38 per cent which moved to 40 per cent in 2010 with an additional seat in the legislature.  This growth in the Opposition PAM support was, however, painfully slow and its leader Lyndsay Grant still did not hold a seat.

Against this background, I penned an article on July 29, 2012 which argued that PAM “needs to grow its support radically and in such circumstances the most logical option is to add a dissident ‘chunk’ of support from elsewhere”.

It is ironic that this comment turned out to be prophetic since the events that transpired between 2012 and 2015 inspired the formation of Team Unity (TU) which effectively added “chunks” of political support from the Nevis CCM as well as the SKNLP itself which contributed one of its brightest political sparks in the shape of new Prime Minister Timothy Harris and former deputy prime minister Sam Condor.

The events that drew this new political entity together from the far-flung corners of the St Kitts and Nevis political divide were discussed in a similar space last Friday. However, the impact of these events combined with the clear exhaustion of the Douglas administration could be said to have brought about the political earthquake alluded to in 2004.

To be sure, this earthquake took the better part of ten years but its impact was no less seismic since it closed the book on one of the longest unbroken tenures in any post-independent Caribbean country.

Earthquakes are generally devastating. However, this one has the potential to bring substantial good to St Kitts and Nevis and the region.

The first and most significant benefit is that it ended an administration that appears to have become a danger to itself and by extension the country.

Certainly the Douglas administration brought substantial development which included a housing, education and tourism revolution. However, over the past five years it is clear that it was more consumed with self-preservation than development. This is epitomised by the fact that Harris was able to leave the SKNLP, cross the floor and win the election. In a perfect political world, he would have been able to do this within the SKNLP since he was clearly more popular than Douglas, but it is equally clear that Douglas was unwilling to let go and preferred to take the SKNLP ship down with him.

A second major benefit will be to the people of that country which is (was) in the opinion of this author, the most polarised country in the Caribbean (along with Jamaica). This is particularly dangerous since it is one of the smallest independent countries in the world. The negative impact of polarisation is well documented and in the case of St Kitts and Nevis this inclination has effectively deprived 30 per cent of the population access to political power and substantial government resources which cannot be good for any nation.

To that was added the historic St Kitts versus Nevis divide which has resulted in a level of insularity reflected in their different political parties. One can only hope that the unity message will now have an impact that is sufficient to reduce or eliminate their historic polarisation and insularity to the point that people from the two islands see themselves as one people with a common developmental objective.

The final major lesson here relates to the series of unusual scenarios which started with the disregard of a no-confidence vote (NCV) for well over two years and ended with an impasse where an elections supervisor walked off the job in the middle of counting and gave the Governor General “grounds” on which to delay the installation of the new Prime Minister. The last set of atrocities have been widely criticised across CARICOM, but sadly little has been said about the NCV which set the tone years before.

These things happened in St Kitts and Nevis because their constitution (like ours) assumed a standard of political behaviour consistent with the Westminster tradition where there is no need to detail the definition of “earliest possible opportunity” or to instruct the Supervisor of Elections to declare the preliminary results immediately after counting.

There might now be a case to take a Hobbesian approach to law-making in the region and eliminate all areas of doubt, but there is a larger political issue which is born of the fact that the Douglas administration was at the helm for too long. As such, persons like elections supervisor Wingrove George might well have been hesitant to herald the end of this era for fear of being disloyal.

In the wake of this fiasco, it should not surprise anyone that I support term limits and admire Kamla Persad-Bissessar for committing herself to this course of action.

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