Tick Tock: Shining a Light on the October Referendum

c-gilesby Cynthia Barrow-Giles

For the first time in their nation’s independence history Grenadians will get a chance to vote on constitutional reforms which are aimed at enhancing the political system.

Grenadian voters are getting set for a national referendum in October that will decide whether they embrace critical constitutional change which will usher in a vastly improved system of governance or reject them and maintain a highly flawed constitutional system which, all but the politically inept, highly partisan or clueless believe is in the best interest of democratic governance.

One of the unfortunate aspects of a referendum is that as voters take their cues from self-interested individuals, groups and organisations like political parties with which they identify, a referendum can be used to score political points which are not always in the best interest of a nation.

The fact is that whether in Grenada or elsewhere in the region, we do not have the luxury of squandering political opportunities presented by governments and political parties which have had a tendency to dominate the political landscape almost exclusively. Should the vote be a negative one, then the debate on constitutional reform may quite possibly be dead in the water for the next generation or two, under circumstances where our people cannot afford to carry on with business as usual. Whatever the outcome, the October vote will most likely be viewed as a critical juncture in the constitutional and political life of the country.

At its core, the October 27 referendum represents the culmination of a lengthy constitutional reform process in which the general public, politicians, stake holders and the gate keepers of the reform debate (the Constitutional Reform Advisory Committee) offered their views on how the political system and governance can be improved.

The reform package which represents a call for a new politics and for widespread constitutional reform in the country includes:

– replacement of the London-based Privy Council with the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), as its final court;

term limits for the Prime Minister;

ensuring that there is always an Opposition Leader;

established fixed dates for general elections (and in so doing shift the power to determine the election timing from the Prime Minister);

Establishment of an Elections and Boundaries Commission ;

adding ‘Carriacou & Petite Martinique’ to the name of the state;

improvement of human rights.

Theoretically these reform proposals seem to be non-problematic but there has been concerns surrounding the conduct of the poll itself. It is for that reason that it would be preferable if separate votes be conducted on the more sensitive issues, for Grenadians should avoid the repeat of the situation which obtained in the constitutional referendum in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Nonetheless, set as the country is on a single vote (one time) on the various issues; all of which will enhance democratic governance in the country; Grenadians need to be wary of negative representations of the issues, especially on the so-called hot potato concerns.

Quite frankly, there are more democratically acceptable ways of ensuring that there will be a Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. However, the truth of the matter is that in Grenada and elsewhere in the Commonwealth Caribbean and many other parts of the British Commonwealth, there is quiet determination to maintain and cling to a flawed electoral system, which, as demonstrated in the electoral history of the country has resulted in a parliament without adequate democratic and representational character on at least two occasions.

The tendency to give massive majorities to a political party with less than 60 percent of the popular support is clearly representationally unfair not to speak of the wasted votes which are implied.

Secondly, in the absence of the opposition, it is undeniable that parliamentary business borders on the farcical and unconstitutional given the constitution’s recognition of a Leader of the Opposition with clear constitutional responsibilities. So that the decision on ensuring that in Grenada no parliament should convene without a Leader of the Opposition is a step in the right direction, albeit through the back door.

It is therefore interesting to read the various views on both the timing and the politics of the process. Yes it is true that information communicated during the course of a referendum campaign is often crucial to the outcome on issues about which voters may have little prior information. But by now, after such an extended process, Grenadians ought to be well apprised of what is at stake. In any event the Constitutional Reform Advisory Committee has made it clear that it will commence a series of public meetings to discuss the critical issues which will appear on the October ballot.

The argument therefore advanced by some advocates of the “no” vote that a “yes” vote will demonstrate that Grenadians are foolish and that Grenada belongs to a select few citizens of the nation, and that a resounding “no” vote will mean a no to victimisation and discrimination (even if it a true reflection of the state of play in the country, for which I have no empirical evidence), is a nonsense. Indeed it is an insult to the intellect of all Grenadians.

The only effect of a “no” vote pushed by the political opposition will be to demonstrate the highly partisan nature of politics in the country. The fact is that whether or not the vote is yes or no, victimisation, discrimination, corruption, are likely to continue under any administration in any country unless more sustained changes are made to weak constitutional structures and to the legal, administrative and political practices.

In any event, a “no” vote will leave the very government which is described in some quarters in the media as vindictive and autocratic, in power, and little prospects that in 2018; the Keith Mitchell administration which totally decimated the opposition in 2013; will face a certain defeat at the poll. Should the “no” vote succeed it will not immediately precipitate a political crisis in Grenada, there will be no immediate removal of Keith Mitchell.

A no vote will simply represent a politically backward step for a country which has been grappling with much needed constitutional reform for the last thirty odd years.

These reforms which are occurring in a political context of domination of the New National Party and in which Keith Mitchell is prepared to impose constitutional limits on himself is quite interesting and a novel approach for Caribbean politicians who are hell bent on maintaining power at all cost. They certainly offer real alternatives for the people of Grenada.

One can reasonably argue that the proposed term limits on the Prime Minister can be viewed as an attempt to maintain control of the party by offering Keith Mitchell’s internal party competitors the prospects of ascending to that attractive post within a stipulated period.

However, the proposals will certainly change the rules of the game on such critical issues as tenure of office, the control of the election timing and professionalising the election administration by bringing it in line with other Commonwealth Caribbean jurisdictions with the implied turn towards greater independence of such an important democratic institution.

Moreover these reforms will provide Grenada with the opportunity to finally take a major step in closing the circle of its political independence by jettisoning the British Privy Council. Hopefully in the not too distant future, Grenada will take that step to closing the circle of formal independence by terminating that absurdity of a foreign monarch as head of state of a politically independent nation. For now this has been kept off the agenda given the strong emotions that often accompany any suggestions that the remaining constitutional monarchies in the Commonwealth Caribbean adopt republicanism, whether of the parliamentary or presidential variant.

Finally and unfortunately, for Grenadians the current referendum campaign has become entangled with a range of other political factors including the personality of Keith Mitchell (whatever that means), victimisation, discrimination, the state of the economy, all of which while important, are above and beyond the issues presented on the referendum ballot.

These questions which the people of Grenada must answer in October represent some of the most critical issues of public policy that Grenadians will have to make since the eve of political independence.

(Dr. Cynthia Barrow-Giles is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the Cave Hill Campus in Barbados of the University of the West Indies)

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