Monday, 7 November, is Election Day in the British Virgin Islands. Election campaigns here are a colorful affair: calypso campaign songs, impassioned speeches, aggressive campaigning and interesting personalities. But elections are taken very seriously. All campaign signs must be removed by midnight, the sale of alcohol on Election Day is banned and voters and election officials take their civic responsibility seriously.
On this, the last weekend before Election Day, campaigning will reach fever pitch. The two main parties have scheduled back-to-back motorcades for Saturday and Sunday which will travel the length and breadth of Tortola with horn honking, music blaring, flag waving and leaving a trail of traffic gridlock in their wake. This is after about 6 weeks of nearly non-stop rallies in each and every hamlet and village in the BVI. Most are broadcast on radio so although I’ve not set foot at a single campaign event I am well acquainted with the rhetoric and messages. When Election Day passes I will particularly miss the catchy campaign songs which currently blanket the radio.
Monday’s election is a contest between the ruling Virgin Islands Party (no website) and the opposition National Democratic Party. It is also a test as to whether third-party or independent candidates stand a chance. I’ve heard people say that this is the year for the independents since disillusionment with the two leading parties is high. But that’s yet to be seen; the main parties have far more resources and political reach than anyone else contesting the poll.
What are the big issues in this year’s election?
The BVI does not have a ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ divide as you might see in other places. The differences are instead more about style, priorities, approach, and perspective. The Virgin Islands Party is the most established political party in the territory. It represents the BVI’s traditional approach to government and its slate includes politicians who have been serving in some cases for upwards of 30 years. It was popularly believed that Ralph T. O’Neal would have stepped down prior to this year’s election, but the 77-year old stalwart defied expectations and is still leading the way for the VIP.
Though formed in 1999, the National Democratic Party is still relatively new and this year’s slate of 12 candidates includes 7 who have not held elective office in the past. (The VIP has two such candidates.) The NDP is the new guard and embraces change and an openness to new ideas. The NDP held the government from 2003-2007 under the leadership of Dr. Orlando Smith, who remains at the helm of the party. The people sent a strong message of what they thought of NDP leadership in 2007 when only two NDP were elected out of a slate of 13.
If I had to identify the biggest difference between the two parties on the issues it would be their approach to business and investment: the NDP has made the need to attract new investment, mostly in the form of new tourism developments, a major plank of their platform while the VIP has demonstrated a more conservative approach to new development. On the intangible side, I believe that the VIP stands for keeping the BVI as it was (for better or for worse) while the NDP represents a willingness to embrace a new way of doing things (whether that new way is better or not). (Personally, I have to believe that ultimately a careful combination of the two approaches is the only good option for the BVI.)
Whichever party wins has their work cut out for them. The BVI has not suffered as much as many countries in the global recession, but the protracted nature of the recession has caught up with us and our government finances are not as strong as one would want. There just are not enough resources to do everything that the government would like and that the country needs, and the incoming government will have to make some difficult decisions. Waste and mismanagement are more costly when there is less money to spend. No one is talking about cutting out fat or making difficult decisions on the campaign trail: it’s all promises, promises and more promises.
What is the role of the local government, anyway?
The BVI is an overseas territory of the UK, which means that it is not an independent country. The Queen appoints a Governor, who is the ‘head of state’ and normally serves a four-year stint. (BVI Governors are typically fairly senior diplomats on the verge of retirement. Up to now, they have all been men.) Responsibility for governing the BVI is shared between the Governor and the elected government. The Governor has responsibility for internal security (the police), the courts, disaster preparedness, external affairs and the elections process. The local government, which controls everything else, is organized in the Westminster style, with five Ministers one of whom is the Premier. The Ministers together with the Governor form the Cabinet, which is the highest policy-making body. The House of Assembly, made up of all 13 elected members, passes the annual budget and approves legislation.
Since the late 1970s the BVI has been entirely self-financing. The local government pays its own bills without assistance from the UK. The UK government has financed particular projects (such as the new prison in the 1990s) but does not provide any money to supplement the local budget. (This is in contrast to the U.S. Virgin Islands which receives a hefty amount of federal funding annually.) Recently talk has surfaced that the UK government may ask to approve the territory’s 2012 budget before it is passed, but it is yet to be seen whether this will happen and if it does, what it means for the autonomy long enjoyed by the local government in budgeting matters.
What will happen on Monday?
Election officials and police begin fanning out to the 18 polling stations in the wee hours of Monday morning and the polls open at 6 a.m. Voting continues until 6 p.m., when counting is done at nine counting stations around the territory. The count is covered live on local radio and TV and I can assure you that most folks won’t go to bed until they know who emerged victorious this time around.
Once the results are in and certified, the party with the most members forms the government. This can happen right away when there is a clear winner, or it can take a couple of days if a coalition is necessary to form a majority.
Want to know more?
Persons outside the BVI wanting to keep up with election results on Monday night can tune into radio station ZBVI on the internet at http://www.zbviradio.com/
The BVI Beacon has an Election 2011 page which includes links to the NPD and VIP manifestos, and much more.
BVI Platinum also has an election center online, with video interviews with some of the candidates.