Daniel K. Gibran | St Kitts in danger of becoming a dictatorship
Kittitians woke up this morning to the unmistakable noise of a rumbling. But it wasn’t an earthquake. It was a noise that is about to shake the very foundation of its democracy. That violent noise was coming from Timothy Harris, a leader who has become desperate in his election bid to the point that he has turned his back on regional diplomatic convention, and bluntly denied entry to an Organization of American States (OAS) election observer team for the June 5 general election.
What is telling is that the Harris government was in discussion with the OAS secretary general 11 days before (May 19), with no indication that it (the Harris administration) would deny their request. However, a communication from the OAS dated May 28 made it clear that the Harris administration has pulled the COVID-19 card, and curtained off the federation from impartial and objective eyes.
According to the OAS release, OAS Secretary General (SG) Luis Almagro had already identified the personnel to carry out their mission, finalised the team’s itinerary, and secured funding for the activity. The OAS SG also advised that its personnel had been repeatedly tested for coronavirus, and that they consistently tested negative. However, the release revealed that on May 27, the Harris administration cancelled the observer mission, saying that the personnel would have to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine (despite being tested negative), which would surpass the time until polling day. The OAS SG indicated his regret that “a practical solution was not put in place like it was the case in Suriname” to allow its observers, and further stating that the process will be monitored from afar.
Harris’ attitude eerily echoes the words of Guyana’s despotic dictator, Forbes Burnham, who spat on the efforts of UK scholars Lord Chitnis and Lord Avebury for their observer efforts in Georgetown 40 years ago. Burnham, cigarette in hand – tore into the media at the time, saying, “I say it’s nonsense! We are not a colony. Does anyone think of sending anyone to the United States to observe their elections, when there are tales about ‘ghost voting’ in Cook County? Or when there were the allegations of fraud by former President Ford? It’s a piece of impudence. We run Guyana! Let us settle our differences in Guyana. Lord Chitnis and Lord Avebury had better apply their efforts to matters which concern them. You see, there are certain members of my Opposition who remind me of a statement, ‘You can take the man out of the colony, but you cannot take the colony out of some men’.”
Burnham then went on to shock the hemisphere with this statement: “What authority has Chitnis, Avebury and the rest have over Guyana? This is not Zimbabwe that was in a process ... this is independent, cooperative Republic of Guyana. It is our right to say when they may come or when they may not come. I’m tired of these busybodies ... let them go and mind their own farmyards.”
Lord Avebury stated at the time: “We conclude that the worst fears expressed by the Guyanese people regarding the violations of the electoral process have been confirmed.”
Forty years later in 2020, another observer mission head, former Jamaica Prime Minister Bruce Golding, told the OAS: “I have never seen a more transparent effort to alter the results of an election.”
Golding’s comment came in the wake of thunderous protests of electoral fraud on the part of the David Granger-led coalition, which at several points tried to sequester, shut out and even ship out the CARICOM observer team. That team was led by former Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur, who clashed with Foreign Minister Dr Karen Cummings, who had threatened to revoke the accreditation of the observers.
The CARICOM report was severely critical of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) saying that at no point did the leadership of GECOM halt or rectify “blatant instances of disregard for the rule of law and electoral ethics, despite its vested authority to independently ensure credible elections”.
Current Barbados prime minister and chair of CARICOM, Mia Mottley, also voiced concern with Granger’s bold-faced tactics, later stating: “The community calls on all concerned to ensure a credible and transparent recount process, in order to provide legitimacy to any government which would be sworn in as a result. This process must be completed without further delay.”
In an immediate joint response to the OAS letter, the president of the St Kitts and Nevis Chamber of Commerce, chair of the Christian Council and president of the Evangelical Association have expressed their concerns with the modus operandi of the Harris government. The NGO coalition notes clearly that it was obvious that the polls would be conducted during the pandemic lockdown, and that government should have made the necessary arrangement for observers, using the recent Suriname election as a template.
The civic leaders stated: “We note that one of the five resolutions in the preamble to the 1983 Constitution Order establishing the Sovereign State of St Christopher and Nevis specifically states that the people of St Christopher and Nevis “believe in the concept of true democracy with free and fair elections.” Throughout our history of universal adult suffrage and for every general election in a post-independent St Kitts and Nevis we have always adhered to the regionally and internationally accepted bench marks of undertaking our electoral process, especially polling day activities, under the scrutiny of regional, hemispheric and international observers.”
The events unfolding before our eyes today have astounding, and far-reaching consequences that have the potential to make the Federation the new pariah of the hemisphere, and take the society 50 years back, eschewing the development and progress of the nation. Harris is clearly discarding the struggle, sacrifice and suffering of pioneers such as Robert Bradshaw and Paul Southwell; and is even turning the faces of his own party’s influencers, in Kennedy Simmonds and Simeon Daniel.
Harris’ declaration of a state of emergency for a public health issue and his denial to domestic and international observer groups to authenticate a fair and free election shows how unfazed he has become. Seizing upon the state of emergency and COVID-19 has become an excuse for taking the short step from authoritarianism to dictatorship. In doing so, Harris has taken a page out of Hungary’s strongman, Victor Orban, playbook. After he was elected to the office of president the first time in 2009 Orban said: “We have only to win once, and then properly.” Harris won once, and then properly, in 2015.
But wait there is more. After winning his second term in 2013, Orban said: “You don’t need governance by institutions.” During his second and third terms, Orban took direct control of the courts and extended his rule by fiat to almost every facet of Hungarian society. And in the wake of COVID-19, he is governing by decree. Harris is doing the same things as he marched hand-in-hand with Victor Orban, and there is grave danger ahead for democracy and the rule of law in St Kitts and Nevis if he is returned to power in 2020.
Harris’ march to governance by fiat and the complete evisceration of the rule of law is unrelenting as his thunderous outburst to his supporters a few days when he said repeatedly: “Borders closed.” A clear signal that his decision is law. And while he may not be infected with the coronavirus, he shows every sign that he has been infested by the virus of election rigging.
It is impossible to think that the other leaders in this knocked-together coalition of political expediency are actively supporting this open dissent by their leader, Timothy Harris, which will only increase the anger and frustration of the people.
Daniel K. Gibran, PhD (Retired) is a professor of international relations and security studies and Fulbright Scholar.