There is a view emanating from those schooled in Westminster that the voices of the minority and the opposition should be silenced. This authoritarian view comes on the heels of the recommendations from Allen Chastanet, former Prime Minister of Saint Lucia and now Leader of the Opposition and political leader of the United Workers Party, and other leaders for the establishment of a Regional Opposition Leaders Coalition.

One must assess whether this recommendation can contribute towards the deepening of our democracy, and its inherent contradictions and limitations due to the political culture of the Caribbean. Sometimes, it is as much about the messenger as it is about the message!

It is no secret that opposition parties, due to the first-past-the-post system, have been systematically annihilated. The electoral results provide disproportionately large majorities for the winning party, as opposed to proportional representation which provides a more level playing field which reflects the true voting preferences. A party may win control of the Parliament but essentially come second in the vote count. Peter A. Jamadar, in The Mechanics of Democracy: Proportional Representation Vs First Past the Post is accurate when he notes that the first-past-the-post system “regularly and repeatedly fails to create a Parliament in which the image of the feelings of the nation are truly reflected and there is a general tendency to exaggerate the representatives of the largest party and to reduce the smaller ones”.

One only has to assess electoral results in the most recent elections in Barbados and other countries, where in some instances parties can receive 35 per cent of the vote and still be left with one or no seat in parliament. Therefore, their presence as a check and balance on the government is significantly reduced – or even non-existent. Sometimes in the absence of institutional mechanisms, those constituencies that apparently voted for these opposition parties or are more traditionally affiliated to them may be penalised through starving of resources, causing the opposition to be unable to represent their interests.

But the disheartening reality is that the constitutional transformation required may be addressed by the coalition, only to the extent that they are its victims.

Do not be surprised to hear deafening silence from the ‘Prime Ministers in Waiting’ if they are to receive the helm of power. It is particularly why more and more people may not support this coalition, and, by extension, have become disenchanted and disengaged with politics. One day they speak on one side of their mouths and the other day it is the other!

Put better, some just aspire to be the colonial leaders of their little island in true Bustamante form. It is perhaps why you may have read me quoting this CLR James quote at every possible chance: “The modern political party, whatever its policy or programme, the moment it takes government, whatever its democratic institutions, becomes a system and a method and an organisation which is opposed to the masses of the people.”

But, the opposition leaders’ arguments are also not without merit, when they speak of the lack of deliberate inclusion in decision-making and the lack of resources they receive to provide to their respective constituents and engage in national programming. It is even worse when the opposition party has received no seats in Parliament and is unable to perform its constitutional responsibilities in many commissions, agencies, and posts. It would also be unable to appoint senators, receive a stipend, receive resources for the development of their party and ensure that the voices of dissent which are fundamental to good governance are present. This is problematic because it represents a large cross-section of the population who should have an avenue to register their discontentment.

Barbados provides the best example when, prior to the deflection by former Barbados Labour Party MP Ralph Thorne, the Democratic Labour Party was unable to make use of the $300 000 subvention under the Parliament Act, and the finances given to each constituency. The DLP’s viability in the absence of these resources is very difficult because it will be unable to amass adequate funds from party membership fees and donations; and when elections have come, it is unable to compete equally because of the lack of robust campaign finance legislation.

However, while the caucus can provide transformational guidance on some of these issues, one must ask whether they are too steeped in the underlying culture of authoritarianism which they will only perpetuate. One cannot, with a stroke of a pen, make leaders of the opposition suddenly not become what they have opposed in the past when they win.

There is a general fear among our people that the politics of retribution, forgetfulness and also victimisation, which is permanent in our body politic, will not cease upon them assuming office. This is why this coalition dies a dreadful death before it is even alive!

It seems almost impossible to imagine which one of these leaders will reduce the powers of the prime minister which will concomitantly embolden the power of others. Who will impose term limits and fixed dates for elections to ensure the opposition is not caught on the back foot, and who will reduce their power of appointment and provide some to the opposition on key statutory agencies and other offices in central government? These may be in the position papers of the coalition but may stay there forever.

As I have lamented previously, opposition parties are also guilty of throwing in the towel in the absence of financial wherewithal and technical expertise, which sometimes points to their unpreparedness to govern. They have forgotten that the opposition years must also be spent providing an alternative to the government by building the intellectual capital of their party and engaging with people in order to present a better option. They are guilty at times of critiquing for critiquing sake, irrespective of the perceived benefits and nobility of the policy. They have also been part of the withering of Caribbean democracy, wherein they pit us against each other – ‘us versus them’ – wherein supporters perpetuate the need to never support the government on anything, and also engage in active reversal of policies of the government upon assuming office.

If they can reduce that which Caribbean people have continually revolted against, they can possibly gain their trust in support of this coalition.

One does not have to go far to see the intellectual backwardness of oppositions on critical areas of constitutional reform in St Vincent, Saint Lucia, Grenada, and Antigua. They recognise the weight of their voice and instead of providing it, they actively oppose the Caribbean Court of Justice, removal of the Governor General, caps on Cabinet ministers, etc. I am not advocating that opposition parties must support the government blindly, but sometimes the literature and evidence for the need to support is pellucid, and it is not given – power for power’s sake!

It is therefore understandable why the proposition has not received steam within the Caribbean, because while the initiative is necessary, there is an underlying lack of trust in the establishment and its players. People see these political officials as those who will perpetuate the cycle that they have complained about, as opposed to changing it. The initiative is therefore a victim of the political culture which needs to be transformed.

Rahym Augustin-Joseph is a recent political science and law graduate from the UWI Cave Hill Campus and aspiring attorney-at-law. He can be reached via rahymrjoseph9@gmail.com.

The post A coalition of opposition leaders? Not in this political culture. appeared first on Barbados Today.

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