Antigua’s election results another sterling test for democracy

“The Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ALP) led by PM Gaston Browne has retained power, winning nine of the 17 seats. The main opposition party won six seats. The two independent winning candidates will vote with the opposition.”

Above was the first paragraph of a local “Breaking News” report hours after the initial results were announced, stating the facts but leaving the arithmetic and mathematical calculus to those who can read between lines and recognise the excluded common denominator: the ALP won a one-seat majority — or nearly lost by the slimmest possible margin.

But the ALP won the elections and will hold office for the next five years, depending on its ability to hold on to its razor-thin majority, or the opposition’s ability to turn the tide by reversing the result – a very real possibility that PM Browne simply cannot be happy with at all.

It’s happened before in Guyana, Saint Lucia and St. Vincent & The Grenadines, where the elasticity of the vaunted Westminster Model’s “First-Past-The-Post” electoral horserace has seen nose-length finishes with the winners taking the only exclusive prize – the office and the power that comes with it, with no second (or third) place, no matter how close the result.

Indeed, the Westminster electoral horserace, at its core (and as practiced in the UK and most of the Commonwealth) is only for the big prize of winning and forming the government, with all the exclusivity that completely excludes the opposition, no matter it’s proportion of the votes cast – as seen in the UK Conservative Party’s current overwhelming parliamentary majority being large enough to simply hold on to office ad infinitum, until it decides to call the next general elections its own timing advantage.

Likewise, the other homegrown adaptations in former British colonies, including the USA, where, as seen in January 2023 for the first time in over 150 years, one seat can make all the difference in deciding which party controls the US House of Representatives.

There are several Caribbean examples too, starting with British Guiana in 1964, when the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) won the elections, but the losing People’s National Congress (PNC) and The United Force (TUF) entered into a post-election accommodation that resulted in the electorate’s choice being altered through manipulation considered acceptable by The Crown and the imperial colonial order.

It also happened in Saint Lucia that same year (1964), when the ruling trade-union based Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) won that year’s general election – like it had done five times since adult suffrage (right to vote) was allowed in 1951 – but the results were altered in a similar post-election accommodation between the two losing conservative parties and two victorious independent candidates, to create the allied United Workers Party (UWP) taking office and (acceptably) easing the victorious SLP out of office.

Guyana also learned that same one-seat majority lesson twice: In 2011 when the PPP/C won the national poll, but the Opposition APNU+AFC Alliance got a one-seat majority in opposition and basically crippled the government’s ability to pass laws it felt important until the next elections in 2015; and again in December 2019, when one member of the APNU+AFC coalition voted against his colleagues in parliament, starting the downward slide that eventually saw that alliance lose its office.

It happened in Saint Lucia in 1987, when the then ruling UWP won that year’s general elections with a tight nine-eight majority that then Prime Minister Sir John Compton simply refused to accept, calling another snap general elections 21 days later – only to get the same eight-seven result, which he again refused and resorted to yet another Westminster post-election subversion of the voters’ will by enticing an opposition MP (one of eight) to “cross the floor” and reward him with a top Cabinet post, taking the UWP’s parliamentary majority to a safer 10-seven.

The Saint Lucia electorate’s inexplicable common resolve to effect succeeding instances of regime change after every one of the last four General Elections (2006, 2011, 2016 and 2021) is also equally inexplicably attributed to an electoral savviness acquired since the 1987 saga.

And then there’s Antigua and Barbuda in 2023 following last month’s keenly-fought general elections, with another Caribbean electorate returning a verdict by the slimmest of margins – another instance of the ruling party and those opposed to it in parliament separated by a one-seat majority.

As has been pointed out, a one-seat majority is not a condemnation, as Prime Minister, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party (ULP) in St. Vincent & The Grenadines has more than once won by one seat – and remained in office for five-year terms.

But while Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ ULP’s ability to survive will have more to do with the political and parliamentary leadership of CARICOM’s longest-serving re-elected Head of Government, ‘The Comrade’ (as Dr. Gonsalves is referred to at home by friends and enemies alike), there’s no doubt that it’s also a noose around him and any other prime minister or president’s neck, as any MP on the winning side can cross the floor.

PM Browne and the ALP are sailing smooth for now, with government supporters inhaling deeply before exhaling any sights or signs of relief, as they will have done the arithmetic and realised that the ALP lost six seats from its previous 15-two majority; and despite the Opposition Party’s Leader Harold Lovell not winning his seat, there are still eight seats in the 17-member parliament not supporting the SLP and the government, which will remain the noose around the PM’s collar – until he either unties it, or it is tightened for the political gallows by any one of his eight loyal elected soldiers.

Of course, sadly, the electorate has no say in members elected for one party crossing to the other side their supporters voted against.

But remember: We’re talking here about the Westminster horserace, which, like the UK’s constitution, simply aren’t written anywhere. So, there…

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