National Democratic Party candidate Lorna Smith and Virgin Islands Party candidate Vincent Wheatley sit outside the Government House on April 25 shortly before being sworn in as members of the new government. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

The at-large race in the general election proved a challenging arena for the incumbent Virgin Islands Party, which secured only one of the four seats available in a blow to its hopes for a majority.

But although the party lost at-large seats held by incumbents Carvin Malone and Neville “Sheep” Smith, other VIP candidates retained their seats, and wins in two open races helped the party get six victories and win over National Democratic Party candidate Lorna Smith to form a new government.

Districts One and Four

The races for districts One and Four were the only ones this year without an incumbent running, and they were competitive.

Both wins also proved vital for the VIP.

The race for the District One seat held since 1999 by Andrew Fahie included the VIP’s Dr. Karl Dawson, independent candidate Chad George, and Progressive Virgin Islands Movement candidate Sylvia Romney-Moses.

District Four offered NDP candidate Dr. Sandy Harrigan-Underhill, VIP candidate Luce Hodge-Smith, PVIM candidate Ian Smith, and independent candidate Rosita Scatliffe-Thompson.

Governor John Rankin congratulates Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley as is sworn in as premier of the territory following the 2023 general elections. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Former representative Mark Vanterpool gave his endorsement to Dr. Harrigan-Underhill, but that wasn’t enough to give her the votes needed.

Dr. Dawson told the Beacon that he learned a lot about the differences between campaigning in a district, as he did this year, and running at large like he did in 2015.

In addition to his efforts to speak directly with residents about their concerns, Dr. Dawson said he believed a long legacy of support for the VIP in the district helped him secure the win.

“I’ve lived there close to 30 years, and I think I’m respected in the community, professionally and personally,” he said. “The district has been in the hands of the Virgin Islands Party for 52 years. Once they put a quality candidate there, the people will do the rest.”

He shared his appreciation for a respectful, civil race and said he hopes district debates like the one held last week become a mainstay of future elections.

Ms. Hodge-Smith ran unsuccessfully on the ticket in 2019 but was able to pull off a win this year.

She said campaigning in Road Town opened her eyes to the wide variety of needs for the centralised district, and she made great efforts to reassure residents and businesses of her commitment to furthering its development.

“After the last elections, I stayed with the district and continued to be visible, have activities, and assist where I could assist,” she said.

In addition to tackling her 12-step plan for improving the district, Ms. Hodge-Smith said she looks forward to supporting the establishment of community committees soon.

Split votes

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley told the Beacon he was hopeful for the party’s chances as the vote counts rolled in, knowing which districts had strong party support and which faced challenges.

“Of course, we were hoping a few other districts would have went our way, but it was not to be,” he said. “We would have hoped to get stronger at-large support. But as an incumbent government during a very difficult four-year period, it was difficult to garner that at-large support. Persons really chose to split their votes.”

VIP President Sharia de Castro — whose twin sister Sharie de Castro was the VIP’s only successful at-large candidate — said the shorter-than-usual campaign season meant it was imperative that the VIP quickly establish common goals among the candidates and get a unified message out to the public. She added that it was important for the party to acknowledge any missteps and present a way forward to voters.

Regarding the lower-than-expected voter turnout this year, the president said the newly elected government will have to work hard to reinstate voter’s morale.

She also told the Beacon she was proud of the party’s record of putting forward the most female candidates this year, with five women and eight men.

PU victory

The VIP’s success in forming a government was by no means assured by the election results, and the party’s failure to secure a majority led to a brief period of uncertainty on April 24 and April 25.

During that time, Progressives United leader Julian Fraser was placed in a unique position. Both the VIP and combined NDP and PVIM parties earned six wins, and he could potentially give either group a majority with his support.

However, he said, he refrained.

“There was no way that I was going to join the VIP to form a government, for that would have been a betrayal,” he told the Beacon. “The VIP came to my office after midnight to discuss forming a government. My response was only if I was premier and remained as Progressives United. That position was non-negotiable given my knowledge of the people I was dealing with and my lack of confidence in their ability to lead the territory.”

Mr. Fraser added that he would have exhausted all opportunities to work with the PVIM and NDP before accepting a deal with the VIP. He had yet to meet with the NDP before the VIP was sworn in on April 25, he said.

VIP District Three challenger Kevin “OJ” Smith, who last ran in 2015, told the Beacon that it was a particularly challenging race.

One hurdle for his campaign, he explained, was simply making the work he was getting done visible. The race also featured another candidate: NDP challenger Aaron Parillon, who also ran in 2019.

Of the VIP’s victory, Mr. Smith said, “We did work hard. We did work strategically. Despite all of the headwinds coming toward us, we managed to stick it out and pull through.”

What’s next?

Despite the party divisions leading up to the election, Dr. Wheatley called for unity on April 25 at the swearing-in ceremony.

His brother, Special Envoy to the Premier Benito Wheatley, said the elections as a whole demonstrated a healthy democracy in the territory.

“The success of the four major parties at the polls deepens the plurality of the House of Assembly, which reflects the various preferences of the public and will provide for healthy debate,” he said. “However, lower than expected voter turnout was troubling and means that a new government and the fifth House of Assembly will have to take steps to rebuild the confidence that has been lost by some voters in the political system.”

Governor John Rankin told the Beacon that the premier will advise him on the date of the first sitting of the fifth House, but that it would likely come after the coronation of King Charles III in early May.

“The important thing for any country is to have free and fair elections,” Mr. Rankin said. “I await the report from elections observers, but I am confident that it will show an election in which everyone who wished to vote, could vote. As the premier noted, I would have liked to see a higher turnout, but it’s been a democratic process, and I’m very pleased to respect that process.”