Proportional representation prescribed as best bet to reflect Caribbean voters’ true wishes

By Earl Bousquet
IF you thought Guyana’s big-broad-massive-and-large US$2.6 Billion 2022 National Budget was the only talk of the Caribbean Town this past week, then think again…

Commenting in his weekly online column on the recent second consecutive Barbados Labour Party (BLP) clean-sweep of all 30 seats in island’s January 19 General Elections, Antigua & Barbuda’s Ambassador to the Organisation of American States (OAS), Sir Ronal Saunders, flagged his native Guyana’s PR system as offering a better chance of reflecting voters’ true wishes.

In his latest published article entitled Proportional Representation in Elections – Key to Democratic Representation, Sir Ronald says the time has come for electoral reform to again regain the attention of Caribbean leaders, governments and people.

According to the Washington-based writer and diplomat, “Electoral reform in the English-speaking Caribbean has been discussed for decades without any attempt to reform the Constitution to make it possible.”

Now that many other (Caribbean) countries “are again considering constitutional reform in the context of changing from Monarchical to Republican status,” he says, “perhaps it is also time to consult the people of these countries on reforming the electoral system to ensure that all votes result in representation in Parliament as government and opposition.”

Examining the recent Barbados result against previous similar clean-sweeps in Grenada, Saunders notes that the ruling New National Party (NNP) of Dr Keith Mitchell achieved this feat three times under the system of constituency divisions and First-Past-The-Post (which also exists in Barbados) and won all 15-seats in 1999, 2013 and 2018.

He opines, however, that winning all the seats in both Grenada and Barbados left opposition political parties in both islands without representation in the Legislature “and therefore unable to question the laws being proposed or the policies bring pursued by the governing political party.”

“Thus,” he adds, “an important check on the actions of the ruling party does not exist.”

Further, he argues, “in small countries, divisions between communities in terms of their needs, aspirations and interests have dissolved with modern road transportation, instant telecommunications, and shared expectations.”

“With the disappearance of these divisions, the electorate votes less for individual candidates and much more for parties and their leaders.”

Against that background, Sir Ronald, who is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto, says: “Perhaps the time has come to consider a change of the electoral system to one of Proportional Representation in which the entire country becomes one constituency, to elect contending parties to the House of Representatives.”

Pointing to Guyana, which he describes as “the only English-speaking Caribbean country in which the British changed the electoral system to proportional representation,” Sir Ronald points out that “Elections return representatives of several political parties, giving the governing party a majority in Parliament and ensuring opposition representation.”

This system, he says, “would be guaranteed to elect both a ruling party and its leader, as well as opposition parties, in accordance with the proportion of votes they receive.”
And further, “Each of the party leaders would submit, in advance of the elections, names that would serve in the House of Representatives or National Assembly.”

Sir Ronald says that “had such a system been in place in Barbados for the 2020 general elections”, based on preliminary published results, the BLP would have won 21 seats in the 30-member Assembly (roughly 71 per cent of the vote) with Mia Mottley as Prime Minister — as the majority of the electorate clearly intended — and the Democratic Labour Party would have won nine seats (28 per cent).

The PR system has been in effect in Guyana for decades and has been both roundly-criticised and well-utilised by all political parties contesting elections, including in 2015 when the Opposition APNU+AFC Alliance proportionally gained a slim one-seat majority in the National Assembly.

And then came the 2020 election results — based on the same PR system that all the parties agreed – but yet which were roundly and forcefully rejected by the original proponents (PNC-R) with false claims the elections were “rigged” and “stolen” by the then-opposition alliance, which did not control the national electoral machinery.

But, life has taught that that the problem is not always with the electoral system, but just-as-much with the attitude of the losers to the results.

Under the Westminster system in place across the rest of CARICOM, losing parties generally accept their losses, even if trying to save face by calling for ‘recounts’ of close results and filing legal writs that are either eventually thrown-out of the courts and/or described as the work of ‘vexatious litigants’ (wasting the court’s time).

Or, as in the case of Saint Lucia’s Dr Kenny D. Anthony when he led the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) into an 11-6 loss (in 2016), or the Leader of Barbados’ Democratic Labour (DLP) Party Verla La Peiza earlier this month, the losing party’s leader resigns.

But the responses of ruling parties to electoral losses are always conditioned by the party leadership’s consideration of the total value of the loss – or, how much is lost by who and how that loss affects the party’s financial heavy-rollers, or the extent to which earnings and acquisitions while in office might be exposed or affected by loss of the ‘power’ of all ruling parties.

It may be the case of a self-anointed local political ‘king’ or ‘queen’ unwilling to be electorally dethroned, or private backers with too many irons in the fire unwilling to just let them burn out.

But in all cases, acceptance or rejection of losses can and will always be decided, not as much by the electoral system’s ability to reflect the will of the electorate, as by the willingness of losers to accept they lost – and move on.

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