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by Garth Patterson Q.C.
The result of the just concluded, confoundingly premature, general election was always a foregone conclusion. The ink on the 2018 ballots was not yet dry, the Democratic Labour Party was in disarray and the nightmare of their last failed administration was still fresh in the minds of the electorate, when we were, again, dragged to the polls.
It was inevitable that the incumbent Government would be returned to power, and no one seriously contemplated any alternative. The Mia Mottley-led Barbados Labour Party pulled off a repeat of their historic 2018 showing, but this time not without serious controversy.
The Government called elections in late December 2021, citing that it was imperative that it receive a fresh mandate, for reasons that are not entirely clear or convincing.
The Electoral and Boundaries Commission subsequently announced that persons who were in isolation or quarantine due to the COVID-19 virus would not be allowed to vote and the announcement ignited a firestorm of protest.
And the rest is history.
If the Government was seeking a fresh, resounding mandate, then it is an open question whether that is what it got. With a historically low voter turnout – by some estimates as low as 46 per cent – fueled in part by the fact that tens of thousands of voters were either unable to vote because they were in isolation or quarantine or, in the case of the elderly and those vulnerable persons with co-morbidities that put them at high risk, were unwilling to risk going out to vote, the victory hardly represents the consolidation – the unequivocal recalibration and unity as a people “behind one Government and one leader” – that the Government was hoping for.
The win was historic for sure, but for all the wrong reasons.
The conduct of elections under pandemic conditions and during a state of emergency ensured that, for the first time since universal adult suffrage, tens of thousands of otherwise qualified electors were disenfranchised and denied a reasonable opportunity of voting.
Their sacrosanct right to choose whether or not to exercise their franchise was unceremoniously stripped away. It represented the single, greatest assault on democratic traditions and precepts that has ever been witnessed in, or perpetrated against the people of, this country since the pre-universal suffrage era. January 19, 2022 will forever be remembered as a decidedly dark day for democracy.
I said before, and say again, a mandate salvaged from the ashes of democracy is no mandate at all. And if this new Government is to gain any semblance of legitimacy – if it wants to erase the taint of illegitimacy that inheres from its deliberate, widescale disenfranchisement of thousands of qualified voters – then it must re-dedicate itself to demonstrating by its words and deeds that it is truly committed to the rule of law and the best democratic traditions.
This new administration must convince the people of Barbados that it is not only capable of resisting, but will unreservedly rebuke, any natural inclination towards authoritarianism or autocracy, and will vigorously uphold the cause of democracy, no matter the cost.
It should take a fresh guard and have a critical look at the things it got wrong during the last administration, with a renewed determination to do right by all Barbadians.
It should make a public promise, a solemn vow, and put necessary systems in place to ensure, that this travesty will never happen again.
With awesome power comes awesome responsibility. And the 30-0 sweep of the House guarantees the Government the almost unfettered ability to chart the course of this country, without any constitutional opposition.
The office of the Leader of the Opposition was created by section 74 of the Constitution, which provides that the President must appoint as Leader of the Opposition the member of the House of Assembly who, in her judgment, is best able to command the support of a majority of those members who do not support the Government.
From a constitutional standpoint, the Leader of the Opposition is required to give advice or be consulted in respect of the exercise of certain powers vested in the President or the Prime Minister by the Constitution.
However, with the BLP winning all the seats, there is no member who does not support the Government and, consequently, no one qualified to hold the office of Leader of the Opposition.
In 2018, the issue was resolved because Bishop Atherley signaled his willingness to sit in opposition to the Government, and thus became the Leader of the Opposition. After being sworn in, he said, “I believe very passionately in the importance of our democracy.
I believe very strongly that we need to do everything we possibly can to make sure that we expand that platform of democracy. That’s the legacy of this Barbados Labour Party and … one of the principal mandates I believe will fall to the Barbados Labour Party team … would be that they would have to further expand the democratic platform, democratic privilege in Barbados.”
He vowed “to give critical support to Party in office and in Government” and that he would applaud them when they get it right and to “put pertinent and pointed questions to them when necessary to keep them on their toes”.
He added, “This is not about Joseph Atherley, this is about the people of Barbados, it is about our traditions of democracy, it is about our parliamentary processes and that is why I am doing what I am doing.”
Joe Atherley is a patriot and held true to his promises and faithfully served the cause of democracy in his role as
Leader of the Opposition. He did so at some personal sacrifice, as it most likely has torpedoed his political career. He stood up when democracy needed him most and by his spirited and sometimes stinging debate in the House showed that he was ready, willing, and able to bell the proverbial cat.
It begs, therefore, the question: who among the current batch of House members will perform his patriotic duty and do an ‘Atherley’? Who has the courage and fortitude to defend the best democratic traditions by putting the nation before party; by putting the people of Barbados before self? Who will now bell the BLP cat? It is doubtful that any of the current members of the House is prepared to follow Bishop Atherley’s lead and, absent constitutional amendment, we will, in all likelihood, have no Leader of the Opposition. And while this does not necessarily create a constitutional crisis, since the Constitution anticipates this eventuality, and makes allowance for the relevant powers and functions to be performed or exercised without the advice or consultation of the Leader of the Opposition, it nevertheless creates a crisis for our democracy.
Having regained power by trampling on the people’s sacred right to vote, disregarding the rule of law, and causing grievous harm to the cause of democracy, this Government has revealed just what it is capable of.
The fact that it would have won the election anyway is no justification for its undemocratic stance – the end never justifies the means. It means that the Government has its work cut out if it is ever to restore the people’s confidence that it is committed to upholding democratic principles: freedom of speech, free and fair elections, the right to vote.
More importantly, it means that the third estate – the media – and the members of civic society – each and every one of us – must be prepared to step up and hold the Government’s feet to the fire to ensure that it stays the course of democracy.
In the best traditions of democracy, we, the people, must fill the breach and, regardless of political affiliation, become the Opposition.
Garth Patterson Q.C. is a Senior Partner of Lex Caribbean. He was called to the Bars of Jamaica and Barbados in 1987 and the Bars of New York and S t Lucia in 1990 and 2011 respectively.