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Do we serve democracy by not holding new elections?

Dear Editor,

Much has been said about the matter of a motion of no confidence in the members of the Gumbs I cabinet by the Parliament of St. Maarten. There has also been much said about that same cabinet's choice not to resign and call for new elections. The prevailing question is "Even if there is an election, what fundamental difference will it make, especially in the light of the fact that the laws relating to the exact process after such a motion of no confidence is passed have yet to be created, and the fact that there will still be no rules to prevent the ship jumping that has led to this point and preceded other changes in government?" This letter seeks to advance two arguments in favor of these new elections. None of these arguments will rely heavily on the legal provisions (Article 33 and 59 of the Constitution) which have been cited, ad nauseam in the ongoing debate. Instead, I wish to present arguments based on one of the principles in which those provisions is anchored, namely democracy.

The first argument for calling new elections is the question of democratic legitimacy of the coalition. In 2014, after polls closed, it was determined that the "quota" of votes needed to obtain a seat was 960. Of the 15 Members of Parliament currently holding office only Thedore Heyliger (1, 945 votes), and Silveria Jacobs (969 votes) got enough personal votes to be elected. Each of the 13 other members of Parliament are there because of votes acquired by other members of their party. How can this new coalition which includes Silvio Matser (498 votes) and Maurice Lake (310 votes) claim legitimacy when neither of these MPs met the quota to obtain a seat. To be blunt, how can two men who relied on others to get into office, all of a sudden be allowed to act on their own without the people being asked to approve them acting on their own by giving them to votes to obtain their seat? In fact, how could any of the prior coalitions have done the same? Wescot-Williams included a ship jumper, as did Wescot-Williams II and Wescot-Williams III. So maybe the real issue here is the questions about whether or not any of the existing parties have truly acted within the bounds of not just the law, but the bounds of that which truly anchors our democracy – consultation with the people via elections.

This argument of illegitimacy is not being raised as a means to favor Cabinet Gumbs I's request for dissolution. In fact, it is an argument the cabinet itself has not used to date. It is also not meant to be used to compare with previous cabinets, supported in parliament by previous coalitions were more or less legitimate. It is meant to finally get us all to ask and answer for ourselves: "Do we, as a people, want a more direct say in fundamental shifts in our parliamentary representation or not?" To be honest this entire conflict has made me think of a quote by Canadian Prime Minister Stephan Harper. In 2008, faced with a coming together of several opposition parties, including the Bloc Quebecois (a separatist party), that could have sent his minority government to opposition he said, "The Opposition is attempting to impose this deal without your say, without your consent, and without your vote. This is no time for backroom deals ...; it is the time for Canada's government to focus on the economy and specifically on measures for the upcoming budget. This is a pivotal moment in our history." These words seem to ring true at this moment in St. Maarten's history.

The second argument – whether or not we trust the new coalition to keep its word on electoral reform - is very much linked to the first. The promise of dealing with ship jumpers through electoral reform has been made time and again without very concrete action. It is a stretch of the imagination to believe that any of the parties who currently benefit from this practice will actually actively address this point. If parties are serious, why do they not make the coming elections a "referendum" on, amongst other things, the plans for electoral reform? Saying that you wish to end the practice of ship jumping, while forming government with ship jumpers does not jive; it does not inspire real confidence that you will do what you say, especially not when lack of action to date is considered. Having an election in which visions for electoral reform are a key issue seems to be the more democratic option. Don't just let the people choose a new parliament, let them be specific in their mandate for electoral reform.

I think the current crisis proves that the "ghost of the Island Council", as an acquaintance of mine likes to put it, is still lingering over our island. In that constitutional structure, the legislature – island council – could not be dissolved and new elections called. That meant parties and politicians, including some of those still around today, were forced to make new coalitions in between elections. However, the parliament of St. Maarten can be dissolved and this creates an opportunity for parties to test whether their ideas and actions truly have the majority support of the population. It is interesting that those who have come together to form the new coalition wish to be restrictive in their use of Article 59 which allows for new elections, but they have chosen not to be cautious with their use of Article 33(2). It is amazing that those who are the genesis of the some of the very same problems that exist now after spending decades in office would toss our country into chaos by sacking a government who has not even been in office a year.

I think the real question to be asked is "Can we truly expect anything different if we do what we have always done; if we yet again go over to the order of the day?" Another real question is "Can we truly believe the absolute statements that no one wants elections or nothing will change if we don't have election?" Some would want us to believe that there is not a real desire for elections, but have yet to quantify or qualify that statement. Some would want us to believe that nothing will change, but is that really their decision to make? If Parliament is the people's house, how can such fundamental changes be made there without consulting them via their vote?

We cannot do what we have always done and expect a different outcome. The argument is made that calling elections changes nothing. That is not true. Having elections now is a drastic change from what has occurred before. On all other occasions, there has been an eventual tacit acceptance, but that pattern of behavior clearly has not served our country. I would hope that doing things differently now would also create more caution in parliament about both ship jumping and motions of no confidence. At the moment, politicians seem free to jump ship and change allegiances every so often because they do not immediately have to face the public at an election, so the people can judge their actions. What if they were cognizant of the fact that they would have to? Is it not possible that this knowledge would create restraint? Remove the conditions under which someone can continue specific behavior and they will have to change. In clear terms, show the ship jumpers and aisle crossers that they can't do this without the people's permission, and they have little choice than to change their behavior.

Donellis Browne

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