In May 2016, I had the honour of introducing Dr The Right Hon. Keith Mitchell, prime minister of Grenada as the feature speaker at the annual Worrell Lecture at the University of the West Indies.
In my introduction, I underscored the point that in every age only a tiny percentage of individuals stood out by virtue of either their achievements and or the quality of their output. I also noted that it was the case that throughout history, and certainly in our time, that we have had a love-hate relationship with some of these individuals. A few politicians and most certainly prime ministers are included in this esteemed group.
Prime minister Mitchell is one of the most formidable politicians in Grenada and by dint of his success at the polls, in the Commonwealth Caribbean too. The then four-time prime minister of Grenada, was in 2016 the only Commonwealth Caribbean leader to have twice successfully led his party to victory and, in the process of annihilating the opposition, securing all seats in the parliament.
On March 16, 2018 he was appointed prime minister of Grenada for the fifth time after yet again (for the third time) delivering a humiliating blow to the opposition. Fifteen seats in two successive general elections. A parliamentary desert for the opposition and an oasis for the government.
Yet, even as the prime minister must be congratulated for this phenomenal feat, there are continuing burning constitutional and by extension electoral issues that these results raise.
Mitchell himself has recognized the shortcomings of the systems that allow for the exclusion of the political opposition from the official corridors of power. Indeed, in his 2014 independence address to the nation, he had made it clear that constitutional reform was required to improve the foundations set by the independence fathers. So in 2016, the New National Party (NNP) government offered Grenadians the opportunity to vote in a referendum on seven bills, which, if successful, would have certainly transformed in a significant way governance in the country.
It is true that the NNP did little to promote the ‘yes’ vote, but seven bills were placed before Grenadians. These included, changes to the fundamental rights and freedoms which included a call for specific reform to correct the historical injustices against women; replacing the British Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice; establishing an elections and boundaries commission; ensuring a leader of the opposition; changing the official name of Grenada to Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique; term limits for the prime minister and fixed date of elections.
Interestingly there was no call for a change in the electoral system except in so far as the election timing is concerned.
Astonishingly all were defeated which may have given the opposition some encouragement that Grenadians would support them in the forthcoming elections. However, we must remember that voter turnout in the referendum was extremely low and therefore ought not to have been interpreted as waning support for the government and the NNP in general.
But to give Mitchell full credit for the stunning and historical victory in 2013 and again in 2018 is to downplay the role that the opposition played in its own demise at the constituency level. The opposition is clearly in disarray and could not capitalize on any political capital that the no vote in the referendum would have suggested. The fact is that though the opposition is again left out of parliament, the NDC continues to enjoy significant support nationally, manifested by the 40.53 per cent of the national vote it secured. Indeed what separates the two main political parties in terms of national support is approximately 10, 000 votes which has translated into zero representation in the national parliament.
The nature of the victory therefore causes some concern and certainly will have an impact on the assessment of political and civil rights in the country.
I recall a 2016 conversation with representatives of Freedom House in which concerns were raised about the absence from parliament of the political opposition, which is assumed as a given in any liberal democracy. It was therefore suggested that Grenada’s ratings be lowered on that indicator, which I objected to, but not because I do not have serious concerns about the lack of a formal voice of the opposition.
A lowered score on political and civil rights would be to punish Grenada for pursuing a majoritarian electoral system that was legitimate, even though problematic. To have pursued that end would have been tantamount to a slap in the face of Grenadians, because of an institutional problem and not because of any wrongdoings by the parties involved. Indeed as in 2013 and 2018, Grenadian elections ought not to be interpreted as mere window dressings for an authoritarian state.
The fact remains that first-past-the-post is a system in wide use and there is no significant evidence that in 2013 the NNP had engaged in action which would have resulted in the elections being unclean. Indeed the NNP was then the opposition. However the then incumbent National Democratic Congress (NDC) had simply lost its way, headed by a weak political leadership, torn by infighting which quickly descended into a minority and the consequential abuse of constitutional power leading to the proroguing of the parliament in order to forestall a no confidence motion in the government. All of which were in vain as the 2013 elections results would have shown.
However, the disquiet surrounding the electoral system and victories such as that scored by the NNP once again raises the spectre of the “fairness” controversy. The major issue is the untenable exclusion of all voices beyond that of the government. Credible, if not entirely clean elections were held, and the contest, though really between two political parties, saw 45 candidates vying for 15 parliamentary seats. Important too is the fact that Grenada has the major institutional guarantees of a democracy though falling short of a representative parliament. There are other limits on government’s authority and all of this is supported by the entrenchment of fundamental rights.
Most believe that there ought to be at least some correlation between national votes and seats won. So that anything short of proportional representation and or a mixed member system will continue to haunt Caribbean jurisdictions like Grenada.
In the interim, given the electoral desert in the country and the lack of opposition eyes, far less watchful eyes in the lower house, alternative avenues for scrutiny and oversight of government must be maximized. It therefore behoves the NDC to engage in internal examination of their failure at the constituency level, leadership, perceptions of the party’s strengths and weaknesses and the opportunities available for strengthening.
Secondly, civil society must be activated beyond that which currently exists. But as with many other Caribbean jurisdictions, civil society in Grenada finds itself in a weakened position. As Kristina Hinds, who has a body of work on civil society in the region contends, these community-based organizations (CBOs) are generally weak, incapable of “influencing what happens in governance due to their own internal issues, as well as government gate-keeping”.
Equally important is the consideration of the electoral environment in Grenada and the extent to which it exposes a need to engage in further reform. Like other Caribbean jurisdictions there were allegations of vote buying, the flying in of Grenadians to cast their vote, the declaration on the eve of an election that oil had been discovered and other activities which best practice would suggest did not render the 2018 elections clean. We therefore need to continue the focus on the regime of elections and party financing, and education to ensure more competitive and cleaner elections.
As to the back slapping by women’s groups on the number of women elected into office, we need to appreciate that whilst Grenada currently holds the number one ranking for gender balancing in the Commonwealth Caribbean, there is really no guarantee that this showing will be maintained in the future. This is unlike Guyana where the constitution and legal instrument provide guarantees for women’s representation in parliament.
The fact is that the history of electoral politics in the Grenada has shown that women have secured that 30 per cent (33.33) representation in 2013 and (46.66, say 50 per cent) only in the context of a clean sweep; therefore more work needs to be done to ensure that this is maintained beyond these election abnormalities. Indeed, global data shows that proportional representation systems tend to elect twice as many women when compared to the plurality system. However, data from Canada and New Zealand show that proportional representation may not be necessary as both countries have succeeded in electing substantial proportions of women with single-member districts. Indeed, the woman proportion of the New Zealand House of Representatives exceeds that of almost half of the proportional-representation nations. Thus, by itself the proportional representation system neither guarantees women seats nor excludes them.
Clearly then, the electoral system by itself is not a sufficient condition for the overall improvement in women’s political representation. There are most decidedly other conditions that favour women’s improved performance at elections. In that context, Robert Darcy, Susan Welch and Janet Clarke in Women, Elections and Representation argue that the nature of the party’s support in the constituency or district, the nature of the swing taking place in any election and the placement of women as candidates in the constituencies are critical factors shaping women’s increase likelihood of being elected. The fact is that the NNP must be applauded for the selecting seven women in this election exceeding its 2013 selection decisions. This should be emulated by other political parties across the region.