After The Referendum
An upbeat-looking and sounding Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves told reporters here yesterday he harboured no sense of dejection, but rather felt energised by the process which rendered a significant victory to his opponents in the referendum on Wednesday.
The results saw the ’Yes’ campaign Gonsalves led, calling on Vincentians to support the project for constitution reform, lose comprehensively, getting 44 per cent of the votes cast.
The ’No’ campaign, led by the opposition New Democratic Party, got 56 per cent of the votes. The opponents also got some 3,000 more votes than were cast for the NDP in the last general election, held in December, 2005.
It means the campaign led by Dr Gonsalves’ United Labour Party lost the popular vote in the historic referendum.
’I do not feel dejected. I feel energised in the knowledge that in time this will be accomplished,’ Dr Gonsalves said during a news conference in the Cabinet Room at the Office of the Prime Minister.
’We lost on referendum day, but I am convinced that we are on the right side of history,’ he had said earlier, talking about what he called ’the noble exercise’ upon which he had embarked.
Several factors led to the results on Wednesday, he said, listing four of the major ones. These, he said, included the fact that among the electorate there was ’fear of the future, uncertainty about the constitution, grievances of government supporters with issues about its performance and an admixture of NDP support and those who succumbed to the scaremongering of the ’No’ campaign.’
He said it was a fact that the opposition managed to bring out more voters than his side, adding that while he congratulated them for that, he felt certain the leaders had to consider the effect of this on the country.
He said they would now have to search their consciences, as well as consider appropriate responses to the questions which were going to come from their children.
’They wanted to give the ULP a political black eye, but in the process have held meaningful change hostage to political manoeuvring.’
Going back over the history of the British granting of the Independence Constitution to St Vincent and the Grenadines in 1979, including the clause which called for the near impossible two-thirds majority for success, Dr Gonsalves then returned to what he saw as the significance of Wednesday’s enterprise.
’They (those he identified as the former colonial masters) never ever imagined that we would attempt to challenge the colonial hegemony which they imposed on us.’
Describing the task as ’a political Mt Everest,’ a phrase he has developed for describing the huge effort required to secure passage of the referendum, he said further that ’we have shown that we possess the intellectual capacity, leadership and courage to challenge those assumptions.’
’The nobility of this effort will never ever be extinguished,’ he said.
Repeating the assertions he made all through the public campaign for public acceptance of constitution reform, Dr Gonsalves said the issue would now revert to ’the back burner for the time being,’ while his government would return to the task of delivering on the mandate it got from the people in the election four years ago.
This included, he said, significant reviews of the government’s programme of delivery of services to citizens, and attention to the concerns which may have led some of them either to stay home on Wednesday, or to vote ’No’ on the referendum.
His party would be particularly keen to find out from those of its supporters who did not vote, Why? And for those who voted ’No’ because they wanted to send the government a message, ’I get the message,’ he said.
He was asked to respond to the conclusions drawn by some commentators on referendum night that the results represented a significant moral defeat for him and the government, and therefore he should consider calling fresh elections.
No, he said. ’Instant commentary does not guide me, because I am convinced it is not imbued with the required heft or wisdom.’
Calling elections, he said, was a process that was ’more involved than selecting a date to marry a prospective bride,’ adding that contrary to what some may read into the referendum results, ’the ’No’ vote has freed me of a constraint.’
By this he meant that under the existing constitution the Prime Minister can move to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections as and when he feels, whereas the proposed new constitution would have placed restrictions on such prerogative. It would have meant that elections could not be called under four and a half years after the last polls.
He could feel the buoyant mood among the leaders of the opposition and some of its supporters, he said, ’but I make a distinction between mood and strength’.
’I assure this nation and all those who know me well that my spirits are in no way dampened.’
’I have no sense of defeat,’ he said. ’I have been engaged in a noble enterprise. I have tried. We have put down the marker,’ he said, saying the fact that 44 per cent of the voters spoke in favour of a new constitution for the first time in the 30 years since the country became independent, could not be ignored.
He was confident that number would grow, he added.
As the news conference ended, Dr Gonsalves said he was heading to Port of Spain for this weekend’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. There, he said, he wanted to make the point that ’financing for development’ should get significant attention, not to be drowned out by considerations over climate change.