St Vincent votes on new constitution November 25

Our sister Caricom state, St Vincent and the Grenadines, holds a referendum on November 25 to replace its constitution, making the country a republic with a complete break from Britain.  If the referendum is free and fair, as expected, it would be the first time a Caribbean state has allowed the people to decide on its continued political affiliation with its former colonial master and/or a new constitution.  Observers from the OAS and Caricom have been invited to monitor the vote, although there are complaints from opponents of the vote that the process is being manipulated.

A two-thirds majority ‘yes’ vote is required for approval. There is no published opinion poll on the outcome, but Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and his governing ULP are confident of a victory and they have been spending big bucks to convince voters to adopt the constitution.  Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace and his NDP are pulling all stops to defeat it.  They are joined by former Prime Minister Sir James (Sonny) Mitchell in the ‘no’ campaign.  Analysts are using the last election outcome as a guide to the projected result. At the last general election in 2005, the ULP secured 55% of the votes as against 45% for the NDP.  But the nation has been slumping economically, experiencing negative growth for the last few years since the collapse of the banana industry and a slow-down in the tourism industry, and Gonsalves is expected to face a difficult re-election next year when polls are constitutionally due.  So he will face a tough, though not impossible, task to realize his goal of winning the referendum. The odds are not in his favor even to make a simple majority. Voters do not want to part with the right and powers they currently enjoy. However, a declining population caused by outmigration, similar to what happened in Guyana in the last election, could inflate the percentage of the ‘Yes’ vote to give Gonsalves the nod.

If the new constitution is adopted, a president will replace the governor general (the Queen’s appointee) as the nominal head of state, and the prime minister will have enhanced (critics say dictatorial) powers similar to those of the president of Guyana under the now infamous Burnhamite constitution.  People are worried there are no checks and balances. The prime minister and president will come from the winning party and neither one will be answerable in a court of law for their actions.  It will not be possible under the new constitution to challenge the declarations of a revamped electoral commission in court.  And the island will break with the Privy Council which will be replaced by the CCJ as the island’s final court of appeal.  The opposition also would have enhanced powers, such as investigating government expenditure, etc.

Both the ruling and opposition parties have been campaigning intensely, according to news reports.  In addition, they have held meetings in the US, Canada, and England to shore up support, although the St Vincentian diaspora cannot vote.  St Vincentians I spoke with in NY seem to oppose the new constitution, but as said above, it is not clear that is the view in their homeland.  The diaspora is not convinced about replacing the Queen as head of state or the Privy Council with the CCJ. Those I spoke with said their relatives back home told them they would vote ‘no.’

While Gonsalves has faced harsh criticism for the proposed new constitution, he ought to be applauded for seeking the people’s verdict rather than forcing it on an unwilling population as certain leaders of other Caricom countries have done after breaking from England.

Yours faithfully,
Vishnu Bisram

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