TAIPEI, Taiwan: One day after the constitution referendum failed, Vincentian Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves said Thursday that he and his party “[got] the message” and would renew themselves before the next general elections.
But opposition leader Arnhim Eustace said his New Democratic Party (NDP) would pressure Gonsalves to demit office because Vincentians had lost confidence in him.
“We would continue to press him [to resign] because we don’t think the people believe in him anymore. There was a time when one would think so. I don’t think that is the situation now,” Eustace said on his party’s radio programme.
Vincentians on Wednesday overwhelmingly rejected the proposed revised constitution with 29,019 — “no” votes — 55.64 percent — and 22,493 “yes” votes — 43.13 percent respectively.
Gonsalves said on Thursday that constitutional reform as a government policy would be placed on the backburner.
He however told reporters in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) that he “had no sense of defeat” even as he admitted that his government and Unity Labour Party (ULP) had “some examination to do”.
Gonsalves must face the electorate within the next 15 months to seek a third consecutive term in office, which analyst said he is unlikely to get
“Clearly, where there are grievances those grievances must be tackled effectively. And where representation has fallen short of the desired level, that must be improved,” he said.
He said the ULP had made a decision “a long time ago to renew itself for the next general”, a suggestion that there could be new faces among the slate of candidates.
“God’s willing, I intend to lead the ULP successfully in the next general elections. At least three current ULP parliamentarians have expressed a desire to quit politics.
“To the extent that some of our supporters sent us a message, I get the message. I know that you are with us. I know you support the large strategic view and vision of your party,” he said.
He said his party would meet with its supporters to find out why they abstained from the vote.
Gonsalves said that he accepted and understood “the people’s verdict” but urged citizens “not to read too much into what transpired” in Wednesday’s referendum.
“I want to repeat this, and you can see it from my own demeanour, my approach and everything. … I have no sense of defeat,” he said, adding that he had “engaged in a noble enterprise”.
He explained the results of the vote saying that 7,000 fewer ballots were cast than in the 2005 general elections and that only about 75,000 of the 98,000 registered voters were actually in the country.
“Thus, the actual voter-turnout was lower than usual. Despite the intensity and hype of the campaign, some 20, 000 persons, at least, who are available on the ground for voting, stayed away from the polls for one reason or another.”
He further said that “huge numbers” of the persons who were inclined to cast “yes” ballots did not vote.
Among the reasons given for abstention, Gonsalves mentioned uncertainty about the significance of the new constitution, fear of the future under the proposed charter “induced by” the Vote No campaign, and grievances against the government and/or particular representatives.
Gonsalves’ commentary sounded more like an indictment against his administration, which spent seven years and EC$11m (US$4m) of public funds overhauling the national charter, including EC$4m (US$1.48m) on the failed Vote Yes campaign.
The NDP withdrew from the bipartisan effort in 2007 and the divide escalated last summer when the government refused to compromise on some issues.
Gonsalves dished out an EC$30m (US$11.11m) “gift” to the nation at independence last month, including EC$200 (US$74) for each of the nation’s 30,000 students and sale of lands from 10 cents to EC$1.50 (US$0.03 to US$0.55) per square-foot
Last week, he promised a holiday next Monday and to personally pay for Jamaican artiste Busy Signal to return to SVG for a second concert if the referendum got 67 percent of the “yes” votes.
In his media briefing on Thursday, Gonsalves said the “no” voters appeared “largely to be an admixture of the NDP base and some who “succumbed to the scaremongering”, which was more successful than the government had expected.
“The NDP wanted to give Ralph and the ULP a black eye. In the process, they have made meaningful and effective constitutional reform a hostage to an ignoble political fortune,” he said.
“What scaremongering!” Eustace said on radio on Thursday.
“Quite frankly, very often Dr. Gonsalves makes these sweeping statements which have no basis in reality; just a reflection of his own confusion.
“Essentially that is what it is. He was aiming for 67 percent and he got 43,” Eustace added before entertaining congratulatory messages from callers.
However, Gonsalves said that the NDP, which ran a spirited Vote No campaign, and citizens at large, should not read into the results.
He said that the NDP introduced the economy and other issues into its referendum debate but the government campaigned on its economic policy and infrastructural developments.
Beginning of the end?
Commentators said that the referendum results could spell the beginning of the end for Gonsalves’ ULP administration
“The people have spoken and have answered with an emphatic and resounding “no” to the quest of the Gonsalves administration to revise the constitution,” analyst Jomo Thomas told I Witness-News on Thursday.
He said that pundits were “clearly surprised by the margin of defeat”.
“Many, including myself, have opined that the referendum could well become a referendum on the stewardship of PM Gonsalves and this seems to be the verdict of the populace.”
Thomas said that the NDP hardly attempted to engage in a constitutional debate.
“It concentrated on the poor conditions of the economy, made even worse by the world financial and economic meltdown, implications of Gonsalves’ foreign policy, which saw close and developing relations with President [Hugo] Chavez of Venezuela, Cuba and Iran, and revelations of big money transactions by governing party operatives as well as perceived corruption.
“With this emphasis,” Thomas said, “it can be concluded that the opposition led a crude or nonexistent constitutional debate, but an excellent political campaign.”
Thomas said when the referendum, “the best change for modernizing the constitutional compact”, was defeated, “the people and nation lost”.
“But Gonsalves is clearly the biggest loser. He miscalculated badly both constitutionally and politically. He must have known that he never had the forces to secure 67 percent. However, he cynically wasted the public purse on an exercise that was intended to gauge his own party support a year before national elections are constitutionally due.”
Thomas noted that Gonsalves was constitutionally 23 percentage points from the mark and voters shaved 11.5 percentage points from the margin of victory they handed him at the 2005 elections.
While Gonsalves congratulated the Vote No campaign for securing more votes in the referendum, he said he did not see a need to call Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace to concede defeat.
He however called on the Vote No camp to join in healing the nation.
“I again say to those who were successful in bringing out more supporters for the No campaign, join me in an ongoing process of healing and uniting this nation even while we continue our competitive political rivalries with tolerance and good sense and within the framework of the law.”