Monday, 11 February 2013 02:30
By Colin Sampson
For many months Antigua & Barbuda has been rife with rumors of impending changes in the constituency boundaries on the mainland.
From time to time voices representing the interests of the opposition Antigua Labour Party have sought to alert the general public to what the ALP has been quick to identify as an attempt by the ruling United Progressive Party to “gerrymander” electoral boundaries.
It very much suits the ALP to make such allegations and to raise an early alarm – if even in the event that what today may be mere fears of UPP tampering with the electoral system but turning out in the future to be a real concern. Where would the ALP be, as a political organization, if its leaders sat complacently back and permitted the ruling party to stack the electoral deck in its favor? The potential consequences of such arrant delinquency would be harrowing to contemplate.
So when Jimmy Fuller, the sole ALP representative on the EBC, spoke out early and loudly about perceived attempts by the UPP majority to ram through far reaching changes to the existing electoral boundaries, all interested parties sat up and took notice. Interestingly, the makeup of the EBC (3 members appointed by the ruling party versus 1 member representing the parliamentary opposition) is a legacy of the ALP years, when ruling parties enacted legislation they could not live with while in opposition – as is the case with the ALP today.
The natural upshot of this “rigging” of the game (obviously as intended) was to ensure that the ruling party of the day would be able to design just about any configuration of constituency boundary it deemed expedient. This sort of patent attempt to “weight” the system in favor of the ruling party reflects a philosophy attributed to the late great Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, former Prime Minister of Guyana, to the effect that no ruling party should ever lose an election.
That ability to draw, redraw and redesign electoral boundaries at will or at whim has over the years been deployed with a vengeance by an ever-victorious ALP. Observers may say that this facility has been a significant contributing factor to the party’s 28-year reign, from 1976 to 2004. One need only consider the miraculous transportation of portions of the constituency of St Johns City South to the distant and discrete regions of Belmont and Bath Lodge, or the magical creation of a formerly unknown district, appearing on no map of Antigua, called All Saints East & “St Luke’s”.
One of the several unfortunate ways in which the hapless UPP has been prone to emulate its philosophical parent the ALP is in the ruling party’s appetite for appearing to tamper in a self-serving way with the electoral system. Discerning citizens mark the beginning of the ultimate surrender of the UPP to that time (by mid-2004!) when ruling party leaders began to excuse their stupidities by saying what amounted to: “Well, they (meaning the ALP) used to do it … so now we can do it too.”
The UPP administration has displayed an oddly split personality on the subject of electoral reform. It might have been reasonable to expect that having “surfed” to power on the back of a wave of electoral reform a canny UPP, having found its opponent’s weakness, would have vigorously pursued the entire issue of electoral reform as a means of keeping the ALP off balance. After all, it was the UPP that was the new kid on the block with nothing to lose and a reputation to gain. The ALP, on the other hand, had put its roots deep down into familiar territory. To prevail, the “new Kid’s” response to victory should have been clear as day: break up the block – create a new reality – discard the status quo.
This latter tactic is clearly the motive force behind the ruling party’s belated attempt to do today what it ought to have done the day before yesterday. Early in its first term the UPP effectively turned its back on electoral form, abandoning a winning strategy in favor of clinging to the status quo. The newly victorious UPP politicians, drunk with the new wine of power, had fallen in love with things as they stood – and were unwilling to entertain the thought of change.
The UPP paid the price for their political stupidity by nearly losing their grip on power in the 2009 general elections. Stampeded by their frightened followers, the UPP leaders then launched out on a brazen career of tampering and tinkering with the electoral process. The ruling party had rediscovered the importance of electoral reform … but now, there was an important difference.
In those halcyon days of 2004/6 a program of electoral reform – including boundary changes – based on some agreed protocol arrived at after open and extensive public consultations might have attracted strong public support. A fresh, new UPP, still a wildly popular administration, might have been able to “sell” extensive electoral changes in a positive atmosphere.
Not so, nowadays. After having lurched from one self-induced political debacle to another over a period of nearly 9 years, the shine is off the bruised and battered ruling party. The UPP has lost its image of patriotic mission, and no longer commands anything like the goodwill it enjoyed early in its first term. The administration is, in fact, viewed with considerable disdain and suspicion by a sizable segment of the electorate – nearly 66% when one adds the support for the ALP to those who would vote to reject the UPP today.
No one should be surprised, therefore, if the public at large is choosing to react with skepticism and suspicion – if not outright scorn – at the ruling party’s newly awakened appetite for electoral reform on a grand scale. At the time this editorial is being written the general public knows no more about any changes the Electoral Boundaries Commission (EBC) may be contemplating than have been contained in a draft document “leaked” to Caribarena.com (ALP Will Fight Boundary Changes – February 06). However, what has been revealed appears to support the view that the ruling party is engaged in a self-serving assault on the electoral prospects of the opposition party, while seeking to enhance its own hold on power.
At this juncture in the history of our young twin-island nation the opposition party is gearing up to defend its claim to represent the aspirations of a majority of citizens of our unfair land. Decent citizens, whether or not they are supporters of the ALP, must be wondering how far the UPP is prepared to go in its quest to do what the ALP managed to do for 28 unbroken years – hold on to power by any means necessary.