Election call in aftermath of St Vincent referendum

KINGSTOWN, St Vincent, November 27, 2009 – St Vincent and the Grenadines Dr Ralph Gonsalves has been challenged to call fresh elections, following his government’s defeat in Wednesday’s Constitution referendum. But he has insisted that the outcome of the vote should not be seen as an indictment on his Unity Labour Party (ULP).

Arnhim Eustace, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) whose campaign against the new Constitution won out in the referendum, yesterday called on Dr Gonsalves to sound the election bell.

The next general elections are due next year, but Eustace says the people should go to the polls earlier.

“Prime Minister Gonsalves, your mandate to guide the future affairs of this country lies in tatters at your feet. In agitating for early elections in 2001 you claimed to have been guided by the voice of the people, only 50 percent of whom had voted for you in 1998. I ask you therefore, Sir, consistent with your reasoning, hasn’t the majority voted against you now? Answer their clarion call. Resign and call fresh elections,” he said.

But Dr Gonsalves has suggested that the way people voted should not be interpreted as their dissatisfaction with the government. In his view, there were several areas of his administration’s performance which the proposed Constitution did not deal with and said there were several reasons for the outcome.

Among them, he said, was a low voter turnout, significantly less than in the 2005 general elections, and “scare mongering” tactics by the NDP’s campaign for the outcome.

A total of 97,751 persons were eligible to cast ballots in the referendum. Of that number, 29,019 voted for, while 22,493 voted against the new Constitution which would have seen St Vincent and the Grenadines doing away with the Queen as Head of State and becoming a Republic. While the NDP supported that aspect, it argued that the Constitution did not reduce the powers of the prime minister enough and that it gave Parliament, rather than citizens, the power to elect the president.

Another provision in the Constitution related to replacing London’s Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the country’s final appeal court.

Antigua and Barbuda’s Attorney General Justin Simon, who has been pushing for the Eastern Caribbean countries to go to referendum on that specific matter together, said yesterday that they did not believe the outcome should hinder the sub-region from going forward with adopting the CCJ.

He told Observer Radio in Antigua that because the St Vincent and the Grenadines referendum dealt with additional issues, a “no” to the Constitution should not be translated into a rejection of the regional court.

“I think we need to recognise that in St Vincent and the Grenadines it was a wholesale change. What we are proposing here in Antigua and Barbuda would be limited to that particular section of the constitution which would allow for the CCJ to replace the Privy Council,” he said.

“One cannot look at it in isolation and say that because there was a rejection in St Vincent and the Grenadines of a wholesale change with respect to the constitution that this sends a black mark or represents a change or there would be a reluctance on our part to move in that direction.”

He said there was a need to educate the people on the need to support the Trinidad-based CCJ and suggested that it should be a joint effort among countries of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).

But Dr Gonsalves, speaking on the same radio station, said he believes that what happened in the referendum in his country may make his OECS neighbours a bit reluctant to touch that issue.

“The governments looking at the experience in St Vincent and the Grenadines would be a little shy of going to a referendum on the CCJ, at least for the time being,” he said.