When a referendum seems to be the last thing on people’s minds

At face value it would have seemed that the outcome of yesterday’s referendum in Grenada was a no brainer, considering all that was placed on the table.

For one, it is not very often that we hear any elected government seeking to place term limits on itself, or seeking to ensure that no matter how strong the political winds blow, constitutionally, provision is made for a leader of the opposition.

In any stable democracy, there is also some merit in having a fixed date for general elections, although this may only serve to prolong the agony of the electorate in cases where there is good reason for immediately turning their backs on the so-called government of the day.

However, in Dr Keith Mitchell’s case, it is really no skin off his back if a two-term limit is placed on the holder of the Office of Prime Minister. At age 70, Mitchell has already served four terms and a fifth would therefore prove more than enough.

Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why this proposal by the Dr Francis Alexis-led constitutional reform commission did not find favour with political aspirants within the opposition National Democratic Congress in particular, since by agreement, what they would have essentially been doing is closing the gate on any of Mitchell’s possible successors, while cementing the New National Party (NNP) leader’s place in Grenadian history as the country’s longest serving prime minister.

“The people have spoken in a referendum . . . and I have accepted it . . . and we have to learn from the process . . . because it has never been tried before and I think this is what we have to understand,” the prime minister said on national television last night after Grenadians issued a resounding ‘no’ to his government’s proposals.

A clearly disappointed Mitchell also took a nasty swipe at his political opponents, who he said were rejoicing at the results “because they chose to play games with the future of this country”.

Overall, there was very low turn-out for the poll in which voters also turned their backs on plans to replace the London-based Privy Council with the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the island’s final court of appeal, which for us is really the greatest travesty of the entire exercise.

According to preliminary results released by the country’s parliamentary elections office, 9,492 Grenadians were in favour of the CCJ move, compared to 12,434 who were against it.

In hindsight, this idea of lumping a regional necessity together with controversial domestic policy issues in a national referendum will never amount to anything good for the CCJ.

It certainly didn’t work in St Vincent & Grenadians seven years ago and it has not worked in Grenada either, so God forbid other Caribbean nations would dare repeat the same mistake.

In a politically divided Grenada, achieving 67 per cent support for anything was always going to be a tall order. However, when voters are asked to decide on the CCJ at the same time they must approve a controversial Rights & Freedoms bill, proponents must have known it was always going to be a near impossibility, especially with church leaders jumping up and down in their pulpits shouting “No” to same sex marriages.

In the end only 5,004 people voted “Yes”, compared to 16,112 who voted “No”, in an outright rejection of the Rights & Freedom Bill.

Voters- including those on Carriacou & Petite Martinique – also rejected moves to change the name of the tri-island state and plans to establish an independent electoral commission.

And while Mitchell has already publicly sought to separate himself from the outcome, based on the NNP’s decision not to openly canvass for a “Yes” vote, he may want to more quietly and soberly reflect in private on a number of important variables, including allegations of political interference in the work of the judiciary, poor governance, lack of transparency and accountability, which have dogged successive NNP administrations.

Then there is also the question of timing of this vote, given that Grenada is currently reeling economically.

The worrying situation has already forced Mitchell’s NNP to make an about turn in its position that the island should avoid an International Monetary Fund programme, after it had actively campaigned against such a move when it was in opposition.

However, with a massive EC$2 billion national debt, government was really left with no choice but to freeze wages and keep public sector hiring at a bare minimum, which does nothing to improve the lot of at least 30 per cent of Grenadians who now make up the national unemployment rate.

It begs the question: Is a political referendum really foremost in the minds of Grenadians at this time, and was the general climate in the country conducive for a serious vote on constitutional reform?

Also, could the Grenada government really actually afford it?

Time will soon tell.

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