VINCENTIAN REFERENDUM: A CASE OF TOO MUCH, TOO LATE?
By Rickey Singh
Source: The Jamaica Observer
Published : Sunday, November 22, 2009
THE court battle to block a national referendum taking place this Wednesday (Nov 25) on a new constitution for St Vincent and the Grenadines may turn out to be a case of too much, too late.
Last Wednesday (Nov 18) a High Court judge chose tomorrow (Monday) to begin the hearing of the petition filed by a four-member "no vote committee" seeking to block the referendum, called to either endorse or reject the proposed new constitution.
The committee members, known to be associated with the parliamentary opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) of Arnhim Eustace, are contending that it was unlawful, discriminatory and immoral for state funds to be made available only to the "yes vote" campaigners of the governing Unity Labour Party (ULP) of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves.
Lawyers for the state, on the other hand, plan to outline why the application to fund the "no vote" referendum campaign should be dismissed as being without merit, frivolous and vexatious.
At stake for the government is the big challenge of securing a "yes vote", with two-thirds of the eligible electorate, for the new post-independence constitution.
Among its significant features will be the end to a governance system with the British monarch as Head of State and replacement of the Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the country's final appellate institution. Empowerment of the parliamentary opposition is also another major provision.
The immediate challenge is for the government's legal team to succeed, either tomorrow (Monday) or on Wednesday, in getting the presiding judge to grant a customary seven-day period for a response to the petition filed by the "no vote committee".
It is the prevailing view in legal circles that it would be consistent with established practice for the judge to allow the argument in favour of the respondent.
This therefore means that while the legal battle is being waged in the High Court in Kingstown on Wednesday, Vincentians will be casting their ballots at polling stations on referendum day - for or against the new constitution.
The question being discussed in political and legal circles is whether this scenario amounts to a national issue of too much, too late.
Too much, that is, to ignore parliament's stamp of democratic approval for the new constitution to be endorsed, or rejected, at a national referendum; and too little in terms of an apparent feeble effort - no known militant, focused opposition, and at a comparatively late stage, to block Wednesday's historic decision by the electorate.
Although approved by a two-thirds parliamentary majority last September 3 in the 15-member House of Assembly, a two-thirds majority is also required at a national referendum for the new constitution to come into force.
The government's response to its opponents has been that the new constitution was approved by a two-thirds majority after widespread national consultations on constitutional reform.
The parliamentary opposition NDP was involved, it said, in both the constitution reform process as well as the parliamentary debates for approval of the new constitution that is now the subject of Wednesday's referendum.
As argued by Prime Minister Gonsalves, funding for the educational campaign on constitutional reform was borne by the state with help from the Organisation of American States.
"Now that the required two-thirds parliamentary majority approval of the new constitution was obtained, I find it strange for the government to allocate state funds for the NDP to oppose the decision of the National Assembly," he said.
Gonsalves' NDP opponents, for their part, have dismissed his argument as engaging "in sheer political sophistry". Nevertheless, clarification has been lacking on why the clamour for state funds in support of a "no vote" campaign was not made during the House debate on Wednesday's referendum.
When told about the moral argument contention of the government's opponents on the sharing of state funds for the referendum campaign, Prime Minister Gonsalves claimed that the NDP had "fallen under foreign influence to create confusion" and was now "panicking" because of the nature of its campaign that "engages in superficialities rather than one of substance".
He said he was "very optimistic" for a required two-thirds "yes" vote (approximately 67 per cent of the voting electorate).
At the last general election of December 2005, the incumbent ULP secured 55.26 per cent of the valid votes and 12 of the 15 seats compared with the NDP's 44.68 per cent vote and three seats.