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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
09BRIDGETOWN774 2009-12-02 12:59:00 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Embassy Bridgetown
Cable title:  

ST. VINCENT REJECTS NEW CONSTITUTION: VOTERS DASH PM

Tags:   PGOV PREL PHUM XL 
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E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL PHUM XL
SUBJECT: ST. VINCENT REJECTS NEW CONSTITUTION: VOTERS DASH PM
GONSALVES' DREAMS OF MAJOR CHANGES TO GOVERNING STRUCTURES

REF: BRIDGETOWN 735; BRIDGETOWN 690; BRIDGETOWN 689; BRIDGETOWN 685

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SUMMARY

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1. (SBU) Vincentians voted convincingly November 25 to reject a
constitutional referendum that would have significantly changed St.
Vincent's structure of governance. The surprisingly sharp 56-44
percent defeat set Prime Minister Gonsalves on his heels and dashed
his plans to follow the referendum with early elections to extend
his mandate in office. Instead, the referendum has reinvigorated
the previously moribund Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP),
whose leader, Arnhim Eustace, called for early general elections
given the lack of confidence expressed by the voters in the Prime
Minister's leadership. The Organization for American States (OAS)
sent a fifteen-member observer team throughout the country's
fifteen constituencies, and found the referendum to be handled
freely and fairly. The governing United Labor Party, which had
rallied intensely for the passing of the bill, was palpably
surprised by the result, prompting Gonsalves to rail against
opposition "scare mongers" who he said poisoned voter opinion on
the matter. In rejecting the proposed changes, Vincentian voters
highlighted a popular uneasiness to changes whose impact was
unpredictable and, possibly, a growing wariness of Prime Minister
Gonsalves' ties with Venezuela and Iran and his desire to weaken
traditional ties with the British monarchy. End Summary.





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A VOTE MIRED IN POLITICS



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2. (SBU) St. Vincent and the Grenadines' November 25 constitutional
referendum, which culminated six years of parliamentary and
political discussion and debate, had been touted heavily by PM
Gonsalves as a necessary document to "complete" independence from
the British monarchy and move the country forward democratically
(see reftels). During the run up to the referendum, however, the
reform process became increasingly politicized, with many
Vincentians coming to view the draft constitution as a pet project
of Gonsalves' and his United Labor Party (ULP). Although the
constitution bill was passed by parliamentary majority in the
Vincentian General Assembly in September, the debate that ensued
followed partisan political lines, and became in the end more an
issue of whether or not voters sided with PM Gonsalves and his
administration's policies. Gonsalves himself admitted privately
that the referendum was as much an indicator of confidence in him
and his government as it was about constitutional issues, and
optimistically planned to call early elections had he garnered at
least 55 percent of the vote.





3. (SBU) The referendum voting itself closely resembled a general
election, with political party representatives observing at each
polling station and Gonsalves himself reportedly glad-handing
voters in various constituencies. Occasionally, electoral
officials had to clarify for voters that they were voting for or
against (via a "yes" or "no" vote) the constitution bill and not
Gonsalves or NDP leader Arnhim Eustace, or NDP supporter and
still-influential former PM Sir James Mitchell. Following the
final vote tally, which resulted in roughly 56 percent against and
44 percent in favor of the new constitution, local commentators
agreed that popular support for the ULP had waned, and that
Gonsalves himself could find the next general election difficult to
win. In his post-referendum address, Gonsalves asserted that the
referendum and outcome had become politicized, suggesting publicly
that the voters were comprised largely of NDP supporters and others
who "succumbed to scare mongering." Eustace said separately that
the results showed that the population was against "poor
governance," and rejected the current government's policies and
programs.




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ELECTORAL PROFESSIONALISM



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4. (U) The electoral process itself was deemed to be generally free
and fair and void of any serious irregularities or abnormalities by
the fifteen-member OAS electoral observation mission, in which an
Embassy Poloff participated. The mission's members were present in
all fifteen constituencies, and were joined by a smattering of
local non-governmental organization (NGO), CARICOM, and
Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) observers. All OAS
mission members agreed that Vincentian electoral officials handled
the day's procedures professionally and legally, and that the
entire process was sufficiently transparent. The voters themselves
were found to be well-versed in their roles and well prepared, as
order was maintained throughout the day. Voter turnout was high,
at about 54 percent, with over 50,000 total votes cast despite
heavy rains during the day. The OAS mission itself was
well-received, with a number of voters telling Poloff that its
presence was reassuring and welcome.





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COMMENT



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5. (SBU) Given the partisan politics that dominated the referendum,
its outcome was an obvious blow to Gonsalves and the ULP. While
Gonsalves knew that the 66.7% threshold to pass the constitution
bill was a long shot, he was convinced he would garner a majority
and had high hopes of winning at least 55-58 percent. Gonsalves
blamed the opposition for polarizing the debate, but Gonsalves
himself had turned to blatant electioneering to boost the "yes"
vote by rolling out over USD 11 million in cash benefits to
students, seniors, government workers, and others a month before
the vote. Gonsalves' failure to turn out his own base suggests
that he is vulnerable and may not survive the next electoral cycle.
Ironically, the only change resulting from Gonsalves' now dashed
constitutional reforms has been a complete reversal of political
fortunes for the opposition NDP. The opposition had been left for
dead by political observers, but has been revived by the referendum
and will begin to press its advantage by calling for early
elections.





6. (SBU) The reluctance of Vincentian voters to embrace changes to
existing governing structures will have ripple effects elsewhere in
the region, where efforts to adopt the Caribbean Court of Justice,
replace the Queen as Head of State, and alter "first-past-the-post"
electoral systems will now be quietly shelved. While Gonsalves'
ties with Venezuela and Iran may not have been directly at issue in
this vote, it is likely that his close ties to these countries,
combined with his aggressive comments about St. Vincent's ties to
traditional allies (he blasted the UK repeatedly for genocide in
his Independence Day address), made votes uneasy about the PM's
intentions and the longer term impact of the proposed changes to
the status quo.
HARDT