Grenada’s referendum on constitutional reform: The way forward

wendy-grenadeBy Dr. Wendy Grenade

On November 24, 2016, Grenadians were afforded the opportunity to vote on seven bills in the first ever referendum on constitutional reform to be held in that country. Of the 71,241 registered voters, a mere 32.4% or just over 21,000 persons voted. The outcome was an overwhelming rejection of all seven bills.

The four bills most heavily rejected were the Rights and Freedoms Bill (“No” 76%, “Yes” 24%); Term of Office of Prime Minister (“No” 74%, “Yes” 26%); Ensuring the Appointment of Leader of the Opposition (“No” 72%, “Yes” 28%); and Fixed Date for Elections (“No” 67%, “Yes” 33%).

The CCJ and other Justice Related Matters; Elections and Boundaries Commission; and Name of State Bills, performed relatively well, although support for those Bills significantly fell short of the two-thirds majority required for success.

In this article I will offer some broad reflections on referendums generally as well as suggestions for the way forward in Grenada.

Through time, legal scholars, political scientists and other observers have grappled with reasons why referendums often fail.

In Australia, for example (where voting is compulsory), as at 2012, 44 referendums have been put to the people but only eight have passed.

In 2009, in St Vincent and the Grenadines, a referendum on a draft constitution failed to achieve the two-thirds majority required for success (56% voted “No” and 43% voted to support the proposed constitutional amendments). Voter turnout stood at 53%.

More recently, on June 23, 2016, in what is referred to as Brexit, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union by 52% to 48%. However, subsequently, the court ruled that the UK Parliament (and not the Prime Minister) must vote on triggering Article 50 to allow Britain to leave the EU.

Similarly, on October 2, 2016, Colombians rejected a peace deal to end 52 years of war with the FARC guerrillas, with 50.02% voting against the peace deal and 49.78% voting in favour. Subsequent to the referendum, Columbia’s Congress approved a revised peace accord with the FARC, an earlier version of which had been rejected in the October referendum.

In Hungary, a referendum related to the EU’s migration relocation plans was held in October this year: 1.64% of the electorate voted “Yes” while 98.36% voted against the government’s proposals.

Voter turnout in the UK stood at 72.2%, while in Colombia it was a mere 37.43%. In the case of Hungary, 44.04% of the electorate participated in the referendum, significantly less than the 50% threshold needed to validate the referendum.

Some of the reasons for unsuccessful referendums include, but are not limited to:

(1). A referendum is a sophisticated form of direct democracy that requires a well-informed citizenry for its success. However, the voting public is often not always conversant with political and constitutional matters. “Don’t know” generally translates to a “No” vote or an all-out boycott;

(2). In highly adversarial political cultures, it is difficult to achieve bi-partisan support on matters of national concern. Yet a super-majority is usually required for the success of constitutional referendums;

(3). Campaigning for referendums is most times less intense than general election campaigns;

(4). In cases where there are controversial issues, the “No” campaign is often well organised, cutting across political party lines to coalesce religious and class interests to preserve the status quo.

With respect to (4) above, the Rights and Freedoms Bill generated much controversy in the weeks leading up to the Grenada referendum. The contention surrounded the ‘gender equality’ clause, which was widely interpreted to mean ‘same sex marriage.’

It is ironic that many Grenadians who vehemently opposed the Rights and Freedoms Bill also rejected the CCJ and instead voted to retain the Privy Council, despite the fact that the Privy Council, and the UK Supreme Court from which the Privy Council judges are drawn, have consistently upheld the right to same sex marriage.

Given the complexity and sensitivity of such issues, there should be greater public education and sustained nation-wide debates on questions of rights, religion, sexuality and citizenship.

Importantly, what are the implications of the “No” vote for party politics in Grenada? While it is too early to predict the outcome of the next general elections, which is constitutionally due in 2018, I am of the view that the “No” vote in the referendum does not in any way suggests diminishing support for the ruling New National Party (NNP) government.

The low voter turnout of 32.4% cannot reasonable by taken as an indication of how Grenadians are likely to vote in the next general elections. Since independence in 1974, voter turnout ranged from 56.3% to 88.6%. It is expected that political parties will mobilise their bases through intense political campaigns and the voter turnout will be much higher whenever general elections are called.

As the case of St Vincent and the Grenadines suggests, Dr Ralph Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party (ULP) lost the 2009 referendum but won at the polls the following year, although with a reduced majority.

What should be the way forward?

(1). National Consensus/Bipartisan Approach – It will be almost impossible to achieve two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments without a bipartisan approach. Both political parties should get back to the table to seek to arrive at consensus on a package of reforms.

The political leader of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) has indicated that, if his party wins the next general elections, the NDC will establish constituent assemblies and seek to reach national consensus on the way forward.

The Prime Minister has also indicated that the process will continue. The government can start the ball rolling by initiating dialogue with political parties, civil society organisations (CSOs), Grenadian youth and all citizens on a proposal to include the CCJ on the ballot for the next general elections (without the inclusion of ‘other justice related matters’).

Given the relative performance of the CCJ Bill in the recent referendum, it is possible that the CCJ can succeed as a stand-alone Bill.

(2). Think Tank on Constitutional Reform – I call for a broad-based think tank on constitutional reform comprising scholar/activists, members of the Bar Association, CSOs, youth, women, farmers, etc. This movement should transcend political party lines and include Grenadians at home and in the Grenadian diaspora. The aim of the movement should be sustained public education and citizen engagement on constitutional reform.

(3). Citizenship and Governance Institute – As a nation matures it must be intentional about nurturing conscious citizens. I suggest the establishment of a citizenship and governance institute in Grenada. This institute can function as a summer school where Grenadian and Caribbean youth can be exposed to knowledge about politics, governance, citizenship, civics, etc.

The University of the West Indies (UWI) and other partners in Grenada can spearhead this initiative.

(4). Averting Regional “Spillover” Effects – Other CARICOM countries that are in the process of mobilising support for the CCJ should not be daunted by the Grenada “No” vote. It is widely agreed that if the CCJ were a stand-alone Bill, instead of being attached to ‘other justice related matters’, it may have had a greater chance of success in Grenada.

Other CARICOM countries should seek to avert negative spillover effects by drawing lessons from the Grenada case. Major lessons are that national consensus within a bipartisan framework, sustained citizen engagement and public education are critical for success.

Finally, as Grenada approaches 43 years as an independent nation, we can ill-afford a repeat of November 24, 2016. The “No” vote was a missed opportunity to enhance Grenada’s democracy and deepen Caribbean regionalism.

Let’s continue efforts at constitutional reform to strengthen nationhood as we seek to renew our independence pact with Grenada.

(Dr. Wendy Grenade is a Grenadian who lectures in Political Science and Regional Integration Studies at The University of the West Indies, Department of Government, Sociology and Social Work, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados).

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