It's an election year here too / by Alan Strathman

Well before I left to come to St. Lucia, I decided that one of the benefits of leaving the U.S. right then was that I would miss the worst of the general election for President. Then I joined a host family headed by Mama Ju who watches the election coverage on CNN and MSNBC every evening. And after three weeks, I moved into an apartment with American cable television.

But wait, that's not all! It's an election year in St, Lucia too.  Though the process could hardly be more different.  St. Lucia has a parliamentary system with only 17 elected officials (It's a small island).  When a new Prime Minister is elected he then appoints a small group of people, about 10 I think, to serve in the Senate.

St. Lucia has two parties, the Labour party (SLP) and the United Workers Party (UWP). SLP is the red party--red flags, red banners, red shirts, red everything--and UWP is yellow. This time of year no one here wears red or yellow clothing accidentally. If you have a lot of yellow clothing but support SLP, you just put those clothes aside until after June 6th. 

One big difference between the the U.S. and St.  Lucian systems is that here the ruling party calls elections. They have a window of time and can call the election at any point in that window. The current ruling party, SLP, announced on May 18th that the election would be held on June 6. The law states that the ruling party must give at least 14 days notice.  So the election season is blessedly short, rather than ridiculously long as it is in the U.S.  Another big difference is that with each election all elected representatives are up for re-election. The terms are not staggered as they are in the U.S.

Last week I rode up to Castries, which means I passed about 70% of the island, and there were many flags and signs and banners for SLP candidates, but not for UWP candidates. Evidently they were not expecting the election would be so soon and so did not yet have their materials ready. Huge mistake when the time to election is so short.

Laborie, where I live, is an SLP stronghold. The current Prime Minister was raised just up the road a ways and his constituency is in Vieux Fort, the bigger town 15 minutes south of Laborie.

When a St. Lucian enters a voting booth she casts only one ballot, for the race between the SLP and UWP candidates running to serve her district.  So Laborians will vote for either Alva Baptiste (SLP), the incumbent, or his challenger Francisco Jean-Pierre (UWP). Thus, there are 17 races going on island-wide.  Whichever party wins the majority of those races becomes the party in power and the head of the party becomes Prime Minister, provided that the head of party won the election in his constituency.

Ads for the two candidates for the Laborie constituency. Though if you look closely at the pictures they could be twins.

Ads for the two candidates for the Laborie constituency. Though if you look closely at the pictures they could be twins.

The Peace Corps expressly prohibits PCVs from participating in any election-related activity, including conversation. If someone tries to engage us in a political conversation we are to say something like "The PC prohibits us from talking about the election." It sounds kind of silly but it is a good rule; we really don't need to be getting into hot water because of our political views. We are also very careful not to wear red or yellow clothing.  Fortunately, 98% of my clothing is blue or green (I'm a summer). 

One other big difference between political races in the U.S. and St. Lucia is that in St. Lucia people treat their political party like they were players on a team that just won the Super Bowl. They do elections like they do sports. I went for a walk earlier that took me up on the highway. And I was passed by 40-50 vehicles in a UWP procession. In every vehicle--cars, pick up trucks, minibuses, dump trucks--people were hanging out the windows, or standing in the truck beds waving flags and banners, screaming and cheering.  Horns were honking, music was blaring. During these processions, people stand along the roadside and when the vehicles reach them they run into the street jumping and yelling and waving their own flags and banners.  It's really fun to watch and so much different than what happens in the U.S. And, of course, the same thing happens with SLP supporters. And this happens all day on the weekends.  Various processions just make their way around the island all day.  They might stop here and there for an impromptu rally, but then they will load up and carry on.

There is such a high rate of illiteracy that many participate in the election without really having any contact with the issues. They vote based on rumor and gossip. Some refuse to vote for Prime Minister Kenny Anthony (SLP) because they believe his wife is a witch who practices voodoo. And the UWP promotes this belief because they know it will get them votes. 

Unfortunately, there is plenty of the ugliness that now permeates U.S. elections. I guess, in the end, it isn't that Lucian politicians lie any less than American politicians, or make promises they can't possibly keep any less than American politicians, or disparage the work of the opposing candidates any less than American politicians, they just do these things for a short period of time. Which makes the whole process much easier to endure.