Change in St Kitts and Nevis

Following the St Kitts and Nevis general election on Monday, conducted in an atmosphere of calm, with a high voter turnout, Tuesday was a day of extreme post-electoral uncertainty and tension in the twin-island federation. On Tuesday morning, state-owned ZIZ radio reported that, with the incumbent Prime Minister Dr Denzil Douglas and his St Kitts and Nevis Labour Party (SKNLP) trailing the three-party Team Unity coalition, Supervisor of Elections Wingrove George had halted ballot counting, declaring that there would be no further announcements of election results.

The smallest independent nation in the Western hemisphere (population 54,000) has only about 36,000 registered voters. With more than twelve hours having passed since the polls had closed, the failure to complete the count and its suspension gave rise, unsurprisingly, to rumours that political skulduggery was afoot and fears that Dr Douglas’s desire to win a fifth successive term – unprecedented in the Commonwealth Caribbean – was clouding his political judgment.

These fears would have been based on the fact that, facing a no-confidence motion in December 2012, in a parliament he no longer controlled due to defections, Dr Douglas was able to tie the matter up in the courts and effectively rule by fiat. Then, with a second no-confidence motion filed last October and under increasing pressure to call elections, Dr Douglas only did so on January 16, after an emergency sitting of Parliament which cleared the way for the revision of country’s electoral boundaries once Parliament was dissolved.

The opposition complained of gerrymandering and procedural sleight of hand and took to the courts. The case went all the way to the Privy Council, which suspended the new constituency boundaries last week, ruling that the Governor-General’s proclamation had not been correctly gazetted. Dr Douglas publicly voiced his dissatisfaction but had to accept the decision.

Against this backdrop, on Tuesday morning, the unseemly delay in the release of the election results and a strong risk of violent demonstrations led a group of influential NGOs, including the St Kitts-Nevis Chamber of Industry and Commerce and the St Kitts-Nevis Bar Association, to send a strongly worded letter to the Electoral Commission urging that the count recommence immediately.

The delay also prompted a number of timely statements by regional actors on Tuesday, calling for calm and the soonest possible declaration of the results. Most notably, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and Caricom, which had thitherto been silent on Dr Douglas’s political and legal shenanigans, were moved to clarify for him the writing on the electoral wall.

Dr Didacus Jules, the OECS Director-General, urged “that the process of ballot counting be expedited so that the election results can be declared without delay and in keeping with principles of electoral transparency.” The current Caricom Chairman, Prime Minister Perry Christie of The Bahamas, issued a statement expressing concern and calling on the Supervisor of the Elections to make the results of the preliminary count known “without further delay;” he also called on “all concerned to fulfil their obligations in the electoral process, to respect the will of the people of St Kitts and Nevis and to ensure that the democratic traditions of our Caribbean Community are upheld.” Similar statements came from the Prime Ministers of Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago.

Just before 5 pm on Tuesday, Mr George reappeared and announced the results. Team Unity, led by Dr Timothy Harris, had won seven of the 11 seats contested, including two of the three Nevis seats. Finally, after 20 years in power, Dr Douglas conceded defeat, doing so graciously enough.

An intelligent and articulate man, a clever and passionate politician, Dr Douglas was by no means a bad prime minister. His last term in office, however, saw his country carrying an onerous debt to GDP ratio of over 100% and one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world. His tenure, moreover, marred by his cavalier treatment of parliamentary norms and increasingly viewed as a “creeping dictatorship” by the opposition, was clearly past its sell-by date.

Dr Harris now has to heal the wounds opened by a bruising campaign and the past few years of bitter political antagonism. He has to show that he and his coalition are capable of ushering in a new era of good governance and that they can manage a turnaround in the country’s declining socio-economic condition. No doubt, they will have their work cut out for them but the people of St Kitts and Nevis are clearly willing to give them a chance. This is the democratic way.

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