Boycott of Parliament Won’t Force Electoral Reforms

Welcome to round two of the battle royal between the United Workers Party (UWP) and the Dominica Labour Party (DLP).

Hector John, the new Leader of the Opposition body-slammed Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and the DLP by walking out of Parliament on Tuesday, a move that immediately evoked the wrath and condemnation of the Prime Minister, Ministers of government and the Speaker of the House.

Judging from their reactions however, it was clear that the government was taken by surprise. Skerrit might have had good reason to believe the new Opposition Leader would have steered a different course from his predecessor, Ron Green. John as well as President of the UWP Edison James did suggest that they would have returned to the parliament after the by-elections. Party supporters also seemed to have favoured a return to the august house. Moreover, John’s swearing in as the new leader of the Opposition in July and his subsequent nomination of senators, signaled almost irrevocably that the boycott of parliament was over and done with.

For the first time in the last nine months, everything seemed set for a return of parliament with both sides of the House represented. John gallantly commandeered his team to Parliament on Tuesday for the sixth meeting of the First Session of the Eighth Parliament. All members calmly took their oath of office and then filed out almost unobtrusively.

At a press conference less than two hours later, John, flanked by his colleagues, informed the nation that the UWP was reinstituting its boycott of the Parliament. The Salisbury MP pledged not to “retreat” or “back down” until the Skerrit administration moved to restore democracy.

The UWP’s challenge to the government this time around is no different to calls made for electoral reform immediately following the December 2009 general elections. In fact, opposition parties have been urging reforms since 2005. Additionally however, the party is calling for the removal of Mrs. Alix Boyds Knights. She has been branded as “a hindrance to the progress of democracy.” Knights, the party argues, is colluding with the government to frustrate the work of the Opposition in the House. Roseau Central MP Norris Prevost, has charged the Speaker with capriciously disallowing the legitimate questions of members to the Prime Minister and other Ministers of Cabinet.

These boycotts however, given the pre by-elections precedent, are unlikely to nudge skerrit in the direction of electoral reform. With a two-thirds majority in the House, political capital that may well take some twenty years, according to Skerrit’s own estimation, to be denuded, and an Electoral Commission that’s all but mute, the Prime Minister is under no pressure to recall Knights, sanitize the electoral list, introduce ID cards and or reform campaign financing. And unless the UWP backpedals and re-strategizes, we’re not going to see a normal parliament convened in this country for the foreseeable future. Luckily for the UWP parliamentarians who were ‘counted out’ in round one of the parliamentary boycotts, there won’t be any by-elections in Marigot, Salisbury or Roseau Central.

While I respect UWP’s rights to boycott Parliament, the move seems a little disingenuous and woefully short on strategy. Frankly the party and its fight for electoral reform would have been better served if it had simply abstained from the April by-elections since the outstanding issues still remain. Furthermore, to walk out from Parliament on Tuesday, when John and James’s reelection seemed to have been tied in part to their promise to return to the House, is a slap in the face of voters.

Marigot and Salisbury constituents and UWP supporters in general should demand of their MPs that they return to Parliament and conduct the people’s business. .John and the rest of his team, in addition to pursuing whatever other protest action they chose, should fight their case in the Parliament. Anything less is tantamount to a dereliction of duties. Notwithstanding the Speaker’s vulgar and brazen attempts to steamroll the opposition and shelter the Prime Minister and his cabinet from the hard questions, Parliament is still the only place government ministers can be called into account. And since the proceedings of the House are now broadcasted live via radio and Television, Dominicans and the world at large will be given a front row seat to the great spectacle.

We the people also need to hold Skerrit’s feet to the fire. Ten years is just too much time to introduce reforms that can be effected with the simple stroke of a pen. Wanting to determine now whether Dominica will not be better served by a national ID card instead of a voter ID card, is a red herring, particularly when the monies for the voter ID cards were voted and approved over five years a ago. That’s dishonest. IT makes you wonder, What Skerrit might be up to.

One has to also wonder about the Electoral Commission. Although beholden to no institution under the constitution, the Commission seems to be suffering from a real bad case of political interference. Otherwise how to you explain its total ineptitude and apparent unwillingness to act on recommendations it has been making for the last three election cycles?

Finally, one might have hoped as well that with the changing of the guards in the UWP camp, the Prime Minister would have adopted a more conciliatory approach to the Opposition and agree on a programme of reform going forward. Commonsense demands it. The first round of boycotts produced nothing but expensive by-elections in Marigot and Salisbury, disenchanted voters, a widening political divide, a near-constitutional crisis and a country with a severely wounded and tarnished image in the eyes of internal community. Things could get a lot worse this time around. Let’s hope however that common sense will prevail and that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition can find some common ground for the good of the country.

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