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St Vincent: arson around?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Stock markets are sliding. Oil is hovering close to US$30. The PM’s residence is stuffed with Grey Goose. David Bowie is gone. But let’s do St Vincent and the Grenadines. There’s some blazing hot politics.

Instability on a next-door island would be trouble. With luck, we’re not about to see Soufrière erupt again. But that’s not for want of talk from the politicians.

On January 4 there was a firebomb attack on the St Vincent Electricity Services. Then on January 7 a public works warehouse was burnt. Prime minister Ralph Gonsalves said while the flames were still smouldering: “The commissioner of police indicated to me that they have a reasonable suspicion that it is arson.”

He says the fire will disrupt his Lives to Live programme, which supplies building materials to “the poor, the needy, the indigent…this is a fire directed against the poor people of this country, the vulnerable and the marginalised.”

He says the fire took place “within a broader context” in which the Opposition New Democratic Party does not accept that it lost the December 9 general election. Nasty talk.

The NDP leader Arnhim Eustace, meanwhile, says the warehouse stores were used to bolster government support: “You would see trucks lined up there early in the mornings…just taking materials to various people in the countryside who support the government."

He asks: “What we want to know is why that particular area was burnt. Who has anything to lose? Where were the documents associated with all those goods that were given away, were those documents stored there? And who would benefit if they were destroyed?”

Whoever won last month’s general election, the result was close. The declared result is eight seats to Comrade Ralph’s Unity Labour Party with 52 per cent of the popular vote, and seven for the NDP, which won 47 per cent.

The ULP swept the eastern Windward side of the main island, Ralph’s home turf. The NDP took the capital, Kingstown; the two Grenadines seats; and most of the Leeward side.

It was pretty much a repeat of the 2010 result, also a eight-to-seven win for Ralph. He had won by bigger margins in 2005 and in 2001, when he ended 17 years of rule by the NDP, led for most of that time by Sir James Mitchell.

Ralph Gonsalves turns 70 in August. He’s unlikely to lead his party into the next election. Instead, he is almost certain to hand over to his son Camillo, now 43, a lawyer who was St Vincent’s somewhat controversial permanent representative at the UN for six years until 2013, when he came home to be appointed senator and foreign minister.

The Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace is slightly older, at 71. He had a brief five months as prime minister after Mitchell retired, then lost the 2001 election. If he wants another crack at the top job, he needs it now. His only chance is to overturn the election result.

Two of his candidates have launched election petitions, which should reach the courts within the next few months. If either of them succeed, there’s a by-election, and—if the NDP wins—a change of government.

In the marginal Central Leeward seat, the NDP holds that the preliminary counts at the polling stations had their candidate, Ben Exeter, a few votes ahead of the ULP. But the final count put the ULP’s Louis Straker 323 votes in the lead.

The election petitions argue that ballot boxes were not properly sealed after the poll, creating an opportunity for tampering before the final count; that there were problems with the voters’ list; that the official mark was pre-printed on the ballot papers, not stamped individually for each voter; and that some ballot papers appeared deliberately mutilated. 

The Organization of American States sent a team of 13 observers to the December election. Its final report is not yet out; but we have a preliminary statement dated the day after the poll. The OAS team was headed by Jacinth Henry-Martin of St Kitts-Nevis, whose Labour party tried some election list shenanigans just one year ago. 

The observers made quick visits to 173 of the 232 polling stations. They don’t appear to have spotted any problems. They left soon after the poll, and there’s no permanent OAS presence to keep watch in St Vincent. 

NDP supporters, meanwhile, have maintained a daily picket at the electoral office. This irritates the Government; there have been arrests and harassment. But there are no ongoing mass protests. So far, we’ve seen nothing like the roadblocks organised by ULP-ites after St Vincent’s 1998 election, in which their party took 55 per cent of the vote, but only seven of the 15 seats. That led to the Grand Beach accord, negotiated in Grenada, and fresh elections in 2001.

So what’s next? If Ralph has his way, next big news will be opening of the Argyle international airport. For the Opposition, it’s overpriced, behind schedule, and riddled with design flaws. For Comrade Ralph, it’s a vital boost for tourism and the economy.

We’ll see.


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