The last three years have been tumultuous times for the Virgin Islands, as the global economic recession has threatened to put the brakes on almost three decades of unprecedented prosperity.
Major capital projects have faced setbacks, drawing criticism from the opposition and the public alike. Meanwhile, controversial government decisions have fueled the fire, sparking public discontent that eventually led to a protest march on the Central Administration Building last month.
But members of the Virgin Islands Party-led government, who took office in 2007, have stood by their record. While conceding that the territory has faced difficulties, they maintain that their actions so far this term will help revive the economy and solve the territory’s infrastructural and social problems.
Next year, VI voters will hand down a verdict.
In the coming months, campaigns will heat up prior to an election some observers have described as the most important in recent memory.
By Aug. 20, 2011, Premier Ralph O’Neal will call for an election date; within two months after that, residents will head to the polls.
If the previous three elections are any indication, a two-party system will continue to dominate the political scene.
In one corner stands the Virgin Islands Party, which has led the territory for 20 of the past 24 years — wresting control back from Cyril Romney’s coalition government in 1986.
In the other corner stands the National Democratic Party, which emerged as a strong contender in 1999, winning five of 13 HOA seats but falling short of the majority needed to form the government. Then, in the 2003 election, the party proved it was here to stay, garnering an eight-to-five majority and ending the VIP’s 17-year winning streak.
But, in the most recent election in 2007, voters revolted against the newcomer. In an unprecedented ten-to-two win, the VIP ousted the NDP government in a defeat that leaders from both parties attributed largely to negative public perceptions of NDP development projects.
Meanwhile, as the two parties have taken centre stage, independent candidates have fared poorly. In fact, despite many hopefuls, only one independent has been successful in general elections since 1999: longtime District Two representative Alvin Christopher, who in 2007 joined the VIP on election night.
Next year’s elections will test how firmly the two-party system has become entrenched.
So far, despite a handful of vocal groups that have formed in recent months, no third party has emerged, and VIP and NDP leaders said they plan to offer a full slate of candidates next year.
VIP vs. NDP
While 66-year-old Opposition Leader Dr. Orlando Smith didn’t hesitate to say he would run next year as the NDP’s leader, the premier, who will turn 77 next month, answered more cautiously.
“My answer to that is: My life is in the hands of my maker, and what he tells me to do, that I will do,” Mr. O’Neal said in a recent interview in his office on the third floor of the Central Administration Building.
Asked who he would like to eventually succeed him as the party’s leader, Mr. O’Neal, who has served as a legislator since 1975, said, “That is a hard thing to answer, because the person I might like to see may not like to lead the party.”
It might be hard for many residents to envision a VIP without Mr. O’Neal, who has led the party since 1995, when then-Chief Minister H. Lavity Stoutt died three months after he was sworn in to his fifth term as leader.
Asked about his government’s record over the past three years, the premier spoke about stability.
“In my opinion, the VIP has kept the country in a stable way,” he said. “We have resolved the peace and tranquility.”
He also listed accomplishments that he said make him proud.
In July, he explained, government implemented plans to cut spending in the public service in response to the global economic downturn — a plan that seeks to shave some $1 million off about $250 million in projected operational expenditures this year. Mr. O’Neal added that the move — which Dr. Smith has criticised as insufficient — also seeks to cut back by focusing on “behavioural” measures like limiting driving privileges.
“While we have reduced spending on certain things up to now, after three years and the financial turndown, we have not had to lay some people off in the civil service,” he boasted, adding that civil service paycheques have not been reduced either.
Continuing, he said his government has also managed to protect the financial sector. Over the past three years, the territory has worked to weather the economic crisis by quickly adhering to shifting international standards set by groups like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, he said.
The premier also said his administration has worked to encourage developers who wish to cater to the mega-yacht industry, adding that discussions are under way with developers concerning the North Sound, Virgin Gorda area.
Thinking green also has been a main objective, he added.
“We have also made our citizens aware of the need for alternative energy, which is very essential,” he said, adding, “And, yes, [we have] contributed to getting our people to understand more the climate change and to prepare for the danger that could occur with climate change.”
He also spoke about how legislators have worked together to pass important legislation like the new Labour Code.
“We started [talking about the Code] about 18 years ago, and there was a hold on it,” he said. “And when we got back [in office in 2007], we insisted that … we must get a new Labour Code because the one of 1975 was needing modernising.”
Continuing, he said his party has also focused on tourism by encouraging development and holding training seminars for industry professionals.
Looking ahead over the next year, the premier said it is time to focus on capital projects — many of which have been beset by delays under his government and the previous government alike.
“We have tackled the sewerage system in Road Town, Long Look and East End,” Mr. O’Neal said of recent efforts to mitigate sewerage problems that have plagued Tortola for more than a decade. “We have continued the construction of Peebles Hospital, and we hope to complete that.”
The premier acknowledged that not all of the party’s 2007 manifesto goals had been met, and said moving forward would be a continued challenge.
“We have been able to put into effect most of the promises we made,” he said. “We have suffered some setbacks with them, but by and large we feel that there has been some changes, as we predicted would have happened, with some of the things we planned to do.”
The VIP has yet to announce its candidates for 2011, but when this reporter asked the premier if many of the same faces would be seen campaigning next year, he said, “I would expect so. I have heard nothing to make me believe that this is not so.”
The two-member, NDP-led opposition has painted a much less rosy picture of the VIP’s time in office.
In the HOA and in the media, the opposition leader and Dr. Kedrick Pickering (R-D7) have heatedly criticised the VIP government on issues including water-and-sewerage problems, delays at the new hospital and the new incinerator, tourism promotion, overspending, and traffic lights at the Road Town Roundabout.
In a recent interview, Dr. Smith defended his party’s 2003-2007 tenure, which he said brought many worthy projects — some of which have stalled since the VIP came into power.
“I think the programmes that we have established and the systems that we established were good for the country, and they need to be continuing with them,” he said.
The opposition leader added that the VIP-led government should have been more proactive when dealing with the economic crisis — “particularly promoting the BVI as a tourism destination.”
“The competition is even greater now, so that is one thing I’m concerned about,” he said. “Generally speaking, there has not been enough concentration on the economy.”
Dr. Smith said his party will do better if it is elected to lead the territory again next year, building on the strengths established during its last term and working to remedy its weaknesses.
When he was chief minister, one of his main challenges was relaying the party’s message to the territory, he said.
Much of that miscommunication centred around development projects, including the proposed Beef Island golf course and mega-yacht marina, which drew protests from many residents and has since been blocked by a High Court ruling.
In the 2007 campaigns the VIP used the protestors’ momentum to strike a populist note, hammering the NDP for “selling out the territory.” Several projects started by the NDP catered to foreign interests, the VIP said.
The NDP countered that, far from “selling out,” the projects would bring much needed tax dollars, high-end tourists and high-paying jobs for VIslanders.
“What happened last time was the [NDP] government was focused on building for the people — trying to build services for the people — and all without talking much first. While we’ll still be focused on having those things done, we’ll have to pay greater attention to the people,” said Dr. Smith, who has recently turned the VIP’s 2007 accusations around, accusing Mr. O’Neal’s government of selling out the territory by signing a multimillion-dollar water-and-sewerage contract with the United Kingdom company Biwater.
In the future, the opposition leader said his party’s plans will include efforts to keep the public better informed.
“At the moment, I think what we’ve learned is we have to inform the people, so we can shape what the country wants,” he said, adding that a forthcoming campaign would include more community meetings and “getting out there.”
In the months leading up to the elections, the opposition leader said he also plans to push for sustainable development.
“We have to talk about the past if we are going to look into the future — but I think the word will be sustainable developments,” he said. “I think that will be an important distinction. I think we will emphasise that: environmental concerns.”
Dr. Smith added that he’ll also continue to push for the development of a national health insurance plan in upcoming debates.
The NDP has already started gearing up for the campaign season. In July, the party held a rally to launch its Web site and unveil its new headquarters behind Scotiabank in Road Town.
At the rally, opposition member Dr. Pickering said the NDP had already laced up its “running shoes.”
Since 2007, the party has functioned with only two members in the HOA, he reminded a room filled with supporters and media members.
“But now we have risen from the dead,” Dr. Pickering said. “I think it’s time to start talking about a new NDP.”
For now, the opposition leader said the party will remain vigilant in debates — both in the HOA and through the media.
“I think that as so many [new] issues pop up we’ll have to continue to be more aggressive — ask more questions — so we can bring out to the community what’s really going on, and also give our opinion on what we should be doing,” he said.
Dr. Smith didn’t provide a full list of NDP candidates, but said he would be joined again by Dr. Pickering. At the rally, he also announced that Dr. Hubert O’Neal would again be challenging the premier in the Ninth District.
This month, businessman Mark Vanterpool also announced he would again seek the Fourth District seat in Road Town with the NDP. Mr. Vanterpool last contested this seat in 2003, and won. In 2007 he ran unsuccessfully as an at-large NDP candidate.
Currently, Dr. Smith said, the party is having “strategic meetings” to plan its campaign and to construct a party list. He said the NDP soon will develop a manifesto outlining the party’s goals.
As the VIP and the NDP gear up for next year’s elections, some residents aren’t happy with either party.
Ask Medita Wheatley how she’d rate the VIP and NDP over the last three years, and she’ll talk about a growing disconnect between the political parties and the people.
One example she used was government’s decision to choose the UK-based Biwater, instead of a local company, to lead the territory’s national water and sewerage scheme.
“The reason it presents a problem to the VIP is because, in my view, the VIP signature has been changed,” she said. “Their previous affiliation as the people’s party has changed. It seems more about personal benefits.”
Ms. Wheatley, an HLSCC lecturer, also said negligent spending habits and “very volatile” campaigning have been major faults with the VIP.
But the NDP hasn’t made a convincing claim that it offers a solution to these problems, she said.
“On the other hand, the NDP has not been seen as a party for the people, but an elitist party: A government with big ideas that most voters cannot relate to, favouring big business and making big decisions for the people,” said Ms. Wheatley, who said she has no party affiliation. “The people are in a state of confusion, because what alternative is there to these two, which I think have failed?”
What is needed, she said, are more independent candidates to counterbalance the party politics.
“I think there is need for focus on individuals representing themselves — independents,” she suggested. “I think there is a coalition of independents that could bridge the gap between parties. … If they could sell this to the people, I think we could see a change in the political culture.”
A strong challenge to the two-party system may yet emerge before elections. In recent months, a handful of advocacy groups have formed, criticising the government and calling for change.
Though none of the groups has declared its intention to offer up contenders for next year’s elections, some have used language that sounds distinctly political.
Early last month, for example, a group calling itself Concerned Citizens called a community meeting in Cane Garden Bay that brought dozens together to hear Pastor Claude Cline address residents’ concerns. Behind him, his uncle, Bishop John Cline, facilitated the discussion.
Addressing issues largely affecting Second District residents, Pastor Cline was quick to point out that the district’s current representative, Alvin Christopher, was not in attendance.
Residents listened to a presentation by Marine Biologist Shannon Gore, who said that CGB is facing serious environmental threats. Then, they voiced concerns about the district’s water and sewerage crisis, the disarray of the roadways, and the beachfront erosion, among other issues.
Pastor Cline implored the residents to call for change.
Asked after the meeting whether he would seek a seat as the community’s elected leader, the pastor said, “If the opportunity is there — if it is what the people want — I probably would, yes.”
Bishop Cline, who ministers at New Life Baptist Church in Duffs Bottom, said he would stand behind his nephew if he were to announce his candidacy.
Contacted last week for this article, Pastor Cline said he’s still mulling the option.
Regardless of his decision, the bishop said churches would continue to play an important role in the elections.
“I think the church will play a critical role to ensure that we put people in office that have a heart and a love for their country and their people,” he said, adding that Concerned Citizens will help foster this role. “I think it’s a whole host of things when you talk about Concerned Citizens: We want our country to progress without leaving people behind.”
Concerned Citizens has worked closely with another group calling itself the Talk Show Hosts Alliance, which includes Bishop Cline, Cromwell Smith, Elihu Rhymer, Karl Dawson and Edmund Maduro.
The alliance launched in April, and its members have since been making a visible impression on screen, on air and in public.
Along with the Concerned Citizens, the group organised a march last month to protest recent government actions, including the signing of the Biwater contract. About 50 residents paraded through Road Town, chanting slogans and waving posters. They took their message directly to the front steps of the Central Administration Building.
People’s Progressive Movement
A third group that formed late last month has distanced itself from politics, but nonetheless has plans to advocate for constructive dialogue during the upcoming campaign season.
Three weeks after Concerned Citizens met in CGB, the People’s Progressive Movement called a press conference to announce its formation.
At the time, the non-profit organisation claimed about 20 members, including board members: Chairman Marlon Penn, Executive Director Neville Smith, Deputy Executive Director Shaina Smith and Cromwell Smith.
Leaders claimed they have no intention of staking a political claim by forming a third party. Instead, they described a “new philosophy” that would aim to tackle issues in the community and restore and unify the territory.
Neville Smith said the group would move forward by organising town hall meetings and encouraging political leaders to bring their topics to the table for community debate.
“Some people don’t listen to the radio, or maybe for some people [the topics are] going over their head, so we want to break it down so even the common man can understand what is going on,” PPM’s executive director said in an interview last week. “Some people are afraid to talk. Some people feel like they are offending people. … Everybody has a right to say what they are thinking.”
Neville Smith said he would not run in next year’s election.
“I feel I can do more for my country at this post now,” he said.
PPM’s leaders described the group as a catalyst for change, a policy watchdog, and a purveyor of freedoms.
“This group will not be a part of politics,” Cromwell Smith said. “It’s a movement and will remain a movement for our children and our grandchildren to deal with.”
He added that while residents affiliated with a political party would be welcome to join the group, those running for political office would not be allowed to sit on the board.
Legislators who have served on the backbench for the last three years may also emerge as wild cards in next year’s election.
The VIP’s unprecedented win in 2007 translated into six backbenchers, some of whom have complained in recent months that the five ministers have relegated them to the sidelines.
Alvin Christopher (R-D2) is among them. The longtime representative — who previously has held, and been ousted from, ministerial positions with both parties — said he’s aware of recent criticism in his district. Now, he wants to make clear that he does not have the authority in his current position to address all the issues affecting his constituents.
“Having to take the seat of a backbencher, and trying to work with your colleagues, it’s very unusual for the people of the country, because they expect you to move politics through the country, but you’ve got this different role,” said Mr. Christopher, who joined the VIP on Election Day in 2007 after winning his district as an independent candidate. “I am not the end product.”
The legislator said he will continue to wrestle with the territory’s issues, adding that the economy will be a key issue in the upcoming debates. But the environment and capital projects also will be very important, he added.
Asked if he will choose the VIP again next year, he said, “I don’t know; I won’t comment at this time.
“Politics being as it is, I want to make those decisions on where I can best serve.”
Mr. Christopher said he thinks party politics, if run for self-interest, can be detrimental.
“When I look at Caribbean politics in small communities, party politics has been a dangerous thing,” said the legislator, who first was elected as an independent in 1995. “When you become more dedicated to the party than promoting the country — than to protecting the country — you end up with the problems we are experiencing. … I go at it very cautiously.”
Continuing, he said he believes developing “trust” among voters will be a crucial role for politicians in the upcoming election, regardless of party affiliations.
Fellow backbencher Elvis Harrigan (R-D5) spoke more enthusiastically about party politics in the territory.
Mr. Harrigan said the VIP holds strong together, even though a scarcity of funds may have led the public to a different opinion.
“There seems to be people on the streets talking about this disunity, but in reality I don’t think it’s disunity,” he said. “Because of the shortness of funds, each minister is trying to develop the ministry as they should. … [But] I sit with them, and everything is honky-dory.”
Mr. Harrigan said there remains a respect for the premier that is felt regionally and internationally.
In the coming debates, he predicted, government’s finances will be a leading issue.
“The first thing for me: I’m quite concerned given my economic background [about] the economic crisis, which seems to be looming longer than experts have thought,” said Mr. Harrigan, an accountant by profession. “Money makes everything go round. Our development in all areas will be affected.”
Moving forward over the next year, government will need to continue to prioritise what it can and cannot afford, he added.
“If we didn’t prioritise back then, we have to prioritise now,” he said. “You can’t put health on hold; you can’t put education on hold.”
Mr. Harrigan acknowledged that both the VIP and the NDP have continued to struggle with similar hurdles, but said the territory will need to work together moving forward.
“It took us about 200 years to get where we are, and we’re not going to fix it in one [year],” he said. “There’s a lot of blame to go around, but I like to think positively, and I think we should move forward and attack these problems when they arise.”
Meanwhile, residents see a variety of issues at stake in the coming months.
CGB songwriter and businessman Quito Rymer said he will remain affiliated with the NDP. But since running unsuccessfully in 1999 as a Second District candidate, he plans keep his distance from the political arena next year.
But Mr. Rymer said he hopes to see more attention paid to tourism.
“I think [tourism] has been getting a lot of lip service for a lot of years; it’s stagnant,” he said. “I feel the product — the pie — the number of people being encouraged to come to the BVI — has not gone up significantly. There’s more people being brought into that pie, and a lot of slices getting pulled away.”
Mr. Rymer also said he would like to see emphasis placed on education and infrastructure in the territory.
Carvin Malone, a former VIP chairman who recently was awarded a contract for major sewerage work in East End and Road Town, said there is one topic he would particularly like to hear debated in the coming months.
“It’s about the economy, in terms of how best can we stimulate the economy,” Mr. Malone said. “I think that will be the most important question come election time.”
Voters living abroad are paying close attention, too. Benito Wheatley lives and works in Washington DC, but continues to pledge allegiance to his native VI.
“I try to keep up as best I can through news media and certain people I talk to,” Mr. Wheatley said in a telephone interview from his DC home.
Asked if he would vote in the 2011 election, he didn’t hesitate to respond.
“I’m a citizen of the BVI, and I see this first and foremost as a national obligation for me,” he said. “I’d like to see the country managed well and lend my voice to certain issues.”