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N Touch
Friday 23 March 2018

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Elizabeth Solomon writes a weekly column for the Newsday.

GRENADIANS WERE just shaking themselves from sleep to start their voting day as this article was beginning to take shape. Even with the most sophisticated of voter mapping technology, predicting the outcome of an election can be as imprecise as betting on a football match based on the actions of an octopus, or a deaf white cat for that matter.

One can only assume how a person casts their vote based on trends and behaviours outside the voting booth, but if the size and enthusiasm demonstrated by the sea of green T-shirted supporters that packed the old Pearls airstrip is any indication, the New National Party has won the hearts and minds of the majority of Grenadians.

Grenadians have a relationship with democratic processes like perhaps no other citizens of the Commonwealth Caribbean. The fact that voters went to the polls on March 13 was not accidental. It was on that day in 1979 that Maurice Bishop ousted the dictatorial leadership of Eric Gary to instal the People’s Revolutionary Government led by the New Jewel Movement, which, if nothing else, set in motion a commitment to participatory governance that remains at the heart of how Grenada defines its political relationship with its citizens.

In 1979, Grenada replaced the Westminster-style constitution with a model of governance that Bishop believed would better serve the needs of the people of Grenada, and in order to do so he believed they had to be involved in the decision-making.

Among the unique mechanisms implemented by the Bishop government was “participatory budgeting,” which allowed citizens a direct contribution to the planning of the national budget; a model that is being used more regularly and in an increasing number of jurisdictions, including by the World Bank in parts of Kenya, by the mayor of New York and in Brazil, to name a few.

On elections as a mechanism of inclusive democratic governance, Bishop questioned the relevance of the parliamentary system, seeking instead to find a more meaningful formula, “a new form of democracy: grassroots and democratic, creating mechanisms and institutions which really have relevance to the people. If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to democracy which we regard as having failed in the region… We would much rather see elections come… when more are literate and able to understand what the vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.”

Ultimately, he did not succeed. A counter coup in 1983 brought an end to the experiment and resulted in his violent death. So Grenada went back to a Westminster parliamentary system, but the aspiration for greater levels of engagement in the democratic processes lived on, and an expectation of an inclusive social compact remains. Prime Minister Keith Mitchel formed the Committee of Social Partners in 2013 to “ensure a more inclusive approach to governance” comprising representatives of the Grenada private sector organisations, the Conference of Churches, the Grenada Trade Union Council and the civil society organisations of Grenada.

In 2015 the partnership was formalised into a signed Social Compact to “act as a strategic mechanism for the formulation and implementation of national policies and for ensuring nationwide problem-solving on various issues.” I suspect this iteration of governance through participatory mechanisms would get the nod from Maurice Bishop, but more to the point, it is a methodology for inclusivity that has required neither a coup nor constitutional change.

We celebrated Commonwealth Day this week also. While few people noticed and even less may find the recognition of the day a cause for particular celebration, it bears notice that this grouping of 53 disparate nations continue to work together around a set of common democratic values. Whether those values continue to be exclusively enshrined in constitutions based on colonial notions of Westminster-style governance remains to be seen.

On the eve of the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London even the legitimacy and relevance of the role of the queen as leader of the Commonwealth is being seriously reconsidered by some.

Clearly, Commonwealth countries continue to struggle with the challenge of traditional notions of governance and how to achieve greater relevance for their citizens. Few countries have grappled more frontally with that challenge than Grenada.


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