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ALL AH WE IS ONE: St Kitts lessons

Tennyson Joseph

ALL AH WE IS ONE: St Kitts lessons

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One of the consequences of the self-congratulatory description of the Caribbean as “model democracies” is that it has denied the necessity for introspection. Often, those who make this claim tend to reduce democracy to the act of “voting”, no matter what the circumstances under which voting occurs. Thus, we hear in the standard post-election speech: “Democracy is alive and well in our country.”

Honest examination, however, would reveal that our current political behaviour bears closer relation to the authoritarian colonial past than it does to any democratic tradition. Our elections are generally moments when ruling parties do everything in their power, and sometimes many things outside of it, to keep office. The events surrounding the 2015 general election in St Kitts and Nevis show clearly that the Caribbean has actually succeeded in believing its democratic propaganda, while pursuing authoritarian politics. 

All the ingredients of autocracy were on display in the St Kitts situation: a four-term prime minister bent on getting a fifth; the avoidance of a no-confidence motion for nearly two years; a crude attempt at last-minute boundary changes; the deliberate manipulation of the parliamentary rules to prevent an open, fair and honest debate on the new boundaries; and the heavy reliance on the overseas vote.

Counting of the vote

When the supervisor of elections therefore unexpectedly called for the public counting of the voting to cease, when he hesitated before declaring the election in favour of the opposition, and when he delayed issuing the writ to the governor general in order to facilitate the swearing in of the government, his actions could not be interpreted as those of an unorthodox maverick, but as part of a tradition which had been planted and solidified after 20 years of one-man, one-party rule in a small state of under 100 000 people.  

Indeed, the appointment of partisan middle management types, unsuited to neutral national service, has been replicated in several Caribbean counties. The one distinguishing feature of the St Kitts case was how glaringly the weakness was played out. Despite how tragicomical the St Kitts election appeared, no Caribbean country should take solace in the false claim that “it can’t happen here”.

However, the real lesson of St Kitts was the silence of the region from as early as the period when the no-confidence motion was being avoided. Indeed, the examples of past success of a prime minister with responsibility for governance in the CARICOM quasi-Cabinet, remained totally ignored in the St Kitts case. Significantly, Dr Ralph Gonzalves himself had been a beneficiary of a CARICOM intervention which forced the early end of the James Mitchell government, when it became clear that the political situation in St Vincent had deteriorated.  

One wonders what were the factors which led to a more laid-back CARICOM and OECS response in the St Kitts case? Only time will tell.

• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus, specializing in regional affairs. Email [email protected]