PM calls for voter education

2011 Voters line up at the Gros Islet Primary School polling station.

During a short HTS interview on Wednesday evening, the newly returned for a third term prime minister observed, with obvious embarrassment, that Saint Lucians needed to be taught the voting process. The report that voters apparently did not know how to properly mark a ballot was cause for pause, the prime minister said.

“It is clear that we have to invest in educating our people,” he acknowledged, “and one would have thought that by now, as a mature democracy, those problems would not exist. But the fact is they continue to exist. And in the last two elections, this last one as well as the one held in 2006, we had far too many rejected ballots. We are far too small a democracy for these problems to exist.”

For his part, the electoral commission’s chairman let it be known that he suspected malice aforethought. Illiterates had not marked the spoiled ballots, he asserted, some people who can read and write had deliberately set out to register their protest. Protest against what? Alas, he did not say.  In any event, why hadn’t the protesters simply stay in bed on Election Day?

If on the other hand the prime minister’s statement is valid, that the problem centers on erudition, how then to explain why in 1997 Saint Lucians had left no doubt about their collective electoral ambition—or, for that matter, cause for questions about their intelligence. At any rate, not from the victorious party. Then again, the prime minister may have been on to something when he suggested our electorate is in urgent need of tutoring. Albeit for different reasons, a similar thought had occurred to me during a televised post-election interview with one of the successful female candidates. She was going on about how clean had been her campaign when I asked her to explain what she considered dirty.

Judging by the way she raised her neatly penciled right eyebrow, I formed the impression that my question had gone over her wig. So I repeated it: “What do you mean? What exactly is a clean campaign?”

She made a strange sound in her throat that would later register as an idiosyncratic chuckle but what I saw in her eyes was more synonymous with panic—as if I had thrown her a trick question. “Well,” she said, “on my platform there was nothing about who slept with whom or whose habits were, you know . . .”

“Why not?” I interrupted. But before she could answer, I added: “Here’s how I see it: when you set yourself up as an election candidate what you’re saying to voters is that you are in every way better equipped than your opponents to be their parliamentary representative. You’re effectively saying, I stand before you naked as the day I was born, ready to be examined. So now, fire away!”

To my surprise, she agreed, only to disagree in the next breath: “What does a candidate’s personal life have to do with his or her ability to work, to deliver what the people want?”

And I said, “Maybe nothing at all. But don’t you think that’s a determination best left to the voter?”

At which point, a small digression: Two or three weeks ago, when it seemed Newt Gingrich was everybody’s choice for the Republican nomination for President of the United States, one of his opponents threw him the following curve ball during a televised debate: “You’ve been divorced more than once because you cheated on your wives. How do we know, if you should become our next president, that you won’t cheat on the American people?”

Gingrich attempted a response while the camera zoomed in on his current wife smiling cutely in a front-row seat. The former House speaker calmly admitted he had strayed but that he had since changed, both in terms of his character and his religion. He was now a Roman Catholic. It had occurred to me, while listening to Gingrich, that he had been lead among the callers for Bill Clinton’s impeachment at the height on the Monica Lewinsky scandal—even as he Gingrich was himself secretly involved in his own extra-marital adventure.

As I took in the televised spectacle shortly before our own general elections on November 28, I couldn’t help imagining the local reaction had a similar “personal” question been put to one of our candidates during a televised interview. Which returns us to my earlier mentioned guest. Where she was concerned, there were personal matters that should be considered out of bounds to both the electorate and interviewers.

I thought about asking her if she would vote for a cheating husband on Election Day but chickened out. Something about my guest left me feeling uncomfortably like a butcher about to slaughter a lamb with nowhere to run. So I took the easy way out, easy for both of us, that is. I allowed her to duck under her own excuse: “You have to understand the people don’t want to know about such things, who is sleeping with whom and all that. What the people want to know is how they will find the money to feed their kids, to furnish them with school books, how they will pay the rent . . .”

“Right,” I said, “the couldn’t care less about liars and thieves and assaulters of women. They care only about bread-and-butter issues.”

“Precisely,” she said, checking her freshly manicured nails.

So I said: “Well, isn’t Grynberg a bread-and-butter issue?” Before she could respond, I updated her on plans by the Barbados government to explore their seabed for oil. “Can you imagine what it would mean for the Bajan economy, should such exploration prove successful? Or what it would mean in terms of bread and butter if we should discover oil right here in Saint Lucia? Can you imagine the jobs?”

Again she laughed her by now established characteristic guttural laugh. “The people need to be educated about such things. Most Saint Lucians know nothing about the details concerning Grynberg.”

“So who will tell them?” I asked. “Who will tell them that character is all-important when it comes to electing a parliamentary representative? Who will tell them the difference between maypwis and accountability? Who will underscore the difference between verifiable fact and calculated perception?”

She shrugged: “Our people need to be educated. But where do we start?”

I said: “We could start by explaining to them the difference between insult and inconvenient truth, between criticizing personal behavior and obvious discrimination against women. Women election candidates are as free to finger egregious male behavior as are misogynists who speak ill of women without just cause. Let it all hang out. Otherwise, the worst elements of our society will continue to represent us in parliament!”

“You’re right,” said my TV guest, wetting her throat.

Barely a week later I watched a televised interview with the prime minister, during which he proffered a key public-service job to a gentleman he had famously described as a close friend of money launderers and international drug barons, among other horrors—all in the name of forgive and forget. And I thought . . . what the hell, if only for the time being, I’ll keep what I thought to myself. It’s about time some other sucker starts speaking his thoughts on the way ahead.

Besides, the people have already spoken. Nothing left to be said save Happy New Year y’all!

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