by J K Roberts (Sound Public Policies Advocate)
A resolution was passed at the annual convention on 24 January 2016 of the main opposition political party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), seeking a Vote No on all of the Constitutional (Amendment) Bills. This must have been a very conscious and well thought-out decision, but how effective and meaningful will be its impact must be of grave concern. Making the decision is not just a right of the NDC to be exercised but the decision made is ‘proper and principled’, based on the ‘unimpressive and unwelcome’ manner of the execution of the Constitution Reform Project and against the backdrop of the costs, significance and implications of the constitutional referendum to effect the proposed reform(s). Particularly, the National Address by V. Nazim Burke, political leader of the NDC on the Grenada Constitution Reform Process, on 2 December 2015 on the verge of the first reading of the Bills in Parliament, gives some merits for the resolution.
The passing of the Vote No resolution may not have been an easy decision to be made by the NDC, from a political point of view, especially considering the ‘scornful rebuke’ that the party got when it withdrew representation in March 2015 from the fourteen-member multi-sectorial Constitution Reform Advisory Committee (CRAC). However, the NDC should have no reservations and regrets about the resolution since it resonates with the sentiments of the ‘conscious and objective’ Grenadian, resulting from the disregard by the powers-that-be to meet the cries and concerns for having decent ‘attitude and approach’ on the reform project. The article “Grenada Constitution Reform: Patriotically Reconsider Please!” makes the call for a revamping of the process, and “Grenada Constitution Reform: Prepare To Oppose” establishes the context for voting no at the referendum.
At the same time, it would be politically foolish for the NDC to rely on the constitutional referendum to test the readiness and strength for the next general elections, which is constitutionally due within the first half of 2018. The experience in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) should give sound warning on this. Whilst the electorate answered the call by the opposition New Democratic Party and voted no at the Constitution Reform polls in SVG in November 2009, the general elections which followed in December 2010 saw the ruling United Labour Party returned to lead the government. Moreover, although there is the strong likelihood of not having the referendum before the next general elections in Grenada, there is also the possible strategy by the ruling New National Party (NNP) to conduct the elections on the heels of the referendum, with the view of weakening the tenacity and capacity of the NDC for the elections after expending much efforts and resources on the referendum.
It must be understood and upheld that the reform project is a noble and sovereign exercise which ought to be undertaken without political prejudices, in the interest of the nation. However, this principle ought not to be taken to mean that political parties are isolated and are debarred from the exercise. Thus for example, the parties do not have to remain silent in the occurrence of blatant irregularities and neither do they have to refrain from advancing a plan of their own. The Vote No resolution is not about politicizing the exercise nor is it about derailing the exercise; but rightly so, the resolution is about the expression of a civil duty to guide the people, to value participatory democracy and to safeguard the nation, within ‘sound and sensible’ judgements. The ‘prosperity and sovereignty’ of Grenada can not and must not be sacrificed for ‘compromise towards consensus’ on a flawed process; this would be tantamount to conspiracy for treason against the State. The further task of the NDC is to convince the people and to rebut its critics; but unfortunately, NDC has not yet been able to promote and to defend the resolution cleverly and forcefully. Read “Grenada Constitution Reform: NDC Speak Up!”.
Most critical is for the NDC to show leadership and fortitude on its Vote No resolution; and this also requires being politically alert and astute. The NDC may have been ‘naïve, cowardly, slow and confused’ in establishing an early position on the reform project and had done some things which would come back to haunt it; a case in point being the signing by NDC of both reports by the CRAC to the Government on the proposals for the referendum. Whilst the NDC has to be prudent, diplomatic and strategic, especially in respect of the signals being sent to institutional bodies and the international community, it must not appear to be ‘docile, reactive and wavering’. The NDC must go forward with the view that although the resolution may put a damper on the referendum, it will not be responsible for any failure of the referendum; but rather, the anticipated failure is a resultant of the widespread deficiencies, repeated mistakes, gross uncertainties, and severe insults to the people which mark the reform project. Also, “Grenada Constitution Reform: Emerging Embarrassments!”
The NDC must also come to the point to realize that the Vote No resolution cannot stand by itself. The party should be occupied with producing and presenting a clear comprehensive package on Constitution Reform, with the provision of a policy on the process for the referendum. Whilst the NDC has leveled complaints and criticisms at the powers-that-be on the reform project, it has not given definite ‘correctness and recommendation’ for improvements’. It is not ‘consoling and sufficient’ for the NDC to say that when the party returns to power then the Grenadian people will see what will be done for the reform, that the Cabinet has to be removed from the process, that the CRAC has failed to subscribe to the required mandate and mission of the project, and that the referendum is about the people. There are many ‘sober and sound’ persons who are disenchanted with the political governance in the nation over the years and are yearning and willing to embrace a ‘reasonable alternative’ under a new constitution; therefore NDC now has the opportunity to earn the admiration and authentication on this quest.
It is even more imperative, incumbent and expected of the NDC to detail its version for the reform project, when considering that it regards itself as the government in waiting and that as forming the past government, it held sessions in December 2010 to complete the project, having the initiative of the drafting of a new constitution by the late Grenadian Law Professor Simeon Randy McIntosh. One may however argue on the ‘appreciation and commitment’ by the NDC for the reform(s), when considering that although it has been recently disclosed that there was an agreement of NDC and NNP before the last general elections in 2013 that the reform(s) will be pursued whichever party wins, there was no leading item of Constitution Reform in the manifesto of the NDC but there was in the manifesto of the NNP.
The reform project has not gotten the ‘seriousness and sincerity’ of the NNP Government, and this can also be accounted for by comparing the organized preparations and investments had for the constitution reform exercise in SVG. The prime minister of SVG, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, spent a lot of money over 7 years for the most extensive political education programme ever done, on the exercise with the proposed reforms been nationalist and democratic. Gonsalves mentioned his attentiveness to the exercise when delivering the second annual March 13th lecture in recognition of the 1979 Grenada Revolution, on 14 March 2016 in Grenada. It will be wise for the NDC to explore the substance and the structure used for the reform exercise in SVG, as well as the new constitution voted on, with the good intent to adopt the positive aspects. Moreover, the NDC needs to study the “final drafts of all provisions for referendum submitted” to the Grenada’s Government by the CRAC, including the Amendment Bills, so as to gather the good lessons from the process and machinery therein and to apply the lessons accordingly.
The passing of the Vote No resolution should not come as a surprise for anyone, especially to persons who have being analyzing the developing stories on the status and trend of the reform project. In fact, the NDC had on different occasions and by different means expressed much disappointments and dissatisfaction with the manner of conducting the project. As a responsible political opposition, the NDC has endorsed the scope and purpose of the project and participated in the launch and work of the CRAC; and it had established expectations and parameters in going forward, advocated and facilitated the views of the Grenadian people, and had agitated concerns on the pertinent issues of the project. The agitations resulted in the powers-that-be holding a so-called National Consultation on the Constitution Reform in October 2014, at which event the desires and determinations of the people drew the attention and support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The irony in holding the national consultation became evident with its outcome; the outcome brings into the limelight the disdain for the people and the deceit with the reform project, by the powers-that–be. Particularly, none of the expressed wishes of the people, including the profound issues from the previous constitutional reviews, appears as a proposal for the referendum, and unfortunately the UNDP could be seen as ‘aiding and abetting’ an anti-democratic enterprise. Review the articles “Grenada Constitution Reform: Democracy and Finance” and “Grenada Constitution Reform: United Nations Position.”
It is instructive to note that UNDP’s Project Document on Support To Referendum On Constitutional Reform In Grenada stresses that experience in the Caribbean has shown that it is difficult to get people to vote “yes” to constitutional change and political disagreement can undermine a yes vote. “If the NDC continues to oppose the process, this could risk a successful referendum vote as experience shows that bipartisanship is crucial to success in such circumstances. Every effort needs to be made to encourage such bipartisanship.” With this statement, NDC could easily become complacent by thinking that it commands the direction and outcome of the referendum. However, the NDC must realize that the asking for a Vote No would be taken to mean a call for the failure of the referendum and thus the party ought to be prepared for any eventuality with backlash.
Political backlash is inevitable, as this is inherent in partisan political culture and which is coupled with the ignorance of the population on independent national issues such as relates to the Constitution. If the constitutional referendum takes place before the next general elections, then the NDC will face robust campaigning by the NNP with a Vote Yes. The advantages of the NNP over the NDC would be manifested by its non-restriction to the ethics of the UNDP, by its control of the Parliament, by its use of the amenities and resources of the State, by its exposure to the electoral instruments, and by rhetoric and propaganda fanfares. If the referendum fails, or if the referendum does not take place as is now hopeful to be by July 2016, and that the NDC wins the next elections, then the NNP will tend to reciprocate a Vote No in order to stall any effort by the NDC for the reform(s); the NNP would hold the position that it did not had the cooperation from the NDC on the referendum when it was in government.
The biggest warning for the NDC is for the party not to be ‘perturbed and distracted’ on its Vote No resolution. Indeed, the greatest temptation may originate from the ‘strong but uninformed’ appeal of prime minister Gonsalves for Grenadians not to oppose the piecemeal measures of constitutional reform, letting that be part of the process of unity and reconciliation and to be a leader for the region where his SVG failed. The Referendum must be historic, in the spirit of the Revolution for a Peoples Constitution.
NDC is prone to political pitfalls, even political suicide. Particularly, without being able to differentiate No Vote from Vote No, many persons will heed the resolution by abstaining from the referendum polls.