The rejection of Republican status by St Vincentians (and the people of the Grenadines) in a free and fair referendum comes as no surprise, but the large percentage of voters who backed the move was a surprise to some people. St Vincentians I spoke with in NY expected their compatriots on the island to reject the proposed new constitution that called for a complete break from England and the Privy Council as the final court of appeal.
But many of these NY-based St Vincentians did not expect almost half the population would support a constitution that calls for increased powers for the Prime Minister and the replacement of the Queen as head of state by a President.
The referendum needed 67% of the votes to be approved but only garnered under 45%. Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves put his reputation on the line and committed several million dollars to promote it to win the vote. The ruling ULP campaigned for the constitution while the opposition NDP campaigned against it. Analysts used the outcome of the last general elections to make a projection of the outcome of the poll. But as I indicated in a letter last week, the economy has been sliding and many people have lost their jobs. In addition, St Vincent has seen a large increase in outmigration. So, it was not realistic for the ULP to expect to duplicate its 55% support from the 2005 general elections, much less the required 67% needed to adopt the constitution.
There was a heavy turnout for the vote even in heavy downpour of rain, as both sides got their supporters out.
The referendum lost 44% to 56%, a complete reversal of the 2005 vote. People are fearful of giving increased powers to the head of government. What St Vincent and the rest of the Caribbean need are not more powers for their rulers but more aid for development. Cementing, instead of breaking, ties to the developed nations should be the focus so they can get more financial assistance.
The outcome suggests that Gonsalves will find himself in political trouble at general elections due in a year unless he takes measures to shore up his base. He told reporters that he harboured no sense of dejection and felt he was on the right side of history to completely dispense with the British. Obviously, the voters didn’t agree. People just don’t want to break from the Queen as their head of state, recognizing the benefits that flow from England into the island and the large number of islanders who make Britain their home.
Although Gonsalves lost the referendum, he must be credited for allowing the voters, instead of the political elite and MPs, to decide on their political future. He must also be applauded for not holding a fraudulent plebiscite as happened in Guyana in July 1978. The leaders of other Caricom states should follow his lead when tinkering with their country’s constitutions and appelate courts.