Dominica’s Eastern Caribbean neighbors and local churches have appealed for calm and good sense in the wake of crippling opposition-led protests over demands for election reforms ahead of general elections on Dec. 6.
The calls from Gaston Browne, prime minister of neighboring Antigua and current chair of the nine-nation Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and the Catholic Church came as riot police fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at protesters, most of them linked to the main opposition United Workers Party (UWP) of former broadcaster Lennox Linton. Police reported no fatalities.
The UWP and its supporters say they are upset that the island of 72,000 is heading into another election cycle without promised reforms including the production of identification cards for voters to avoid allegations of fraud. Such allegations have plagued previous elections.
The UWP fears that it won’t have a winning chance if it participates in the polls without safeguards against fraud but the cabinet is pressing ahead with preparations for election day.
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit’s Dominica Labor Party (DLP) is seeking a fifth consecutive five year term and has called a snap election, hoping to cash in on the success of the reconstruction of the island’s infrastructure after the devastation from Hurricane Maria in late 2017.
OECS Chair Gaston Browne called for “an end to violence and other disruptive activities. These are essential to ensuring that general elections in Dominica are conducted in an atmosphere free from fear,” he said in a statement appealing for calm.
“To me it is a very sad situation. That’s as much as I would say. It’s a very sad situation,” Bishop Gabriel Malzaire told reporters. “I think we need to work towards correcting it because it is not a nice feature at all.”
Police said that the protests have effectively disrupted life in the so-called nature island as UWP supporters, determined to deny Skerrit a fifth term, have blocked several main roads into the capital, Roseau, and have blocked streets near the home of ceremonial President Charles Savarin, a former veteran government minister. Protesters, he said, have also been stopping emergency vehicles like ambulances from reaching hospitals.
The clash with riot police came amid heightened tensions this week as parliamentary candidates for various parties and constituencies filed papers on nomination day, a week ago.
Anger has also spilled over into open clashes with police after Savarin refused to meet with protesters to discuss grievances.
The DLP is heading into the polls with 15 of the 21 seats but could be in for a rough time despite the brilliant reconstruction efforts of the administration in the wake of super storm Maria.
A shaken up Skerrit, 47, took to the airwaves to address the nation, noting that the situation will have a great impact on the economy and could frighten away both cruise and long stay tourists.
“What really is the reason for these protests? Why are they seeking to destroy image and economic well-being of the country? Something about their behavior does not add up,” the PM said, noting that international hotels were forced to place facilities on lock down as tear smoke filled the air and as rubber bullets whizzed by.
He fears the December-January cruise peak season could be affected if the demonstrations continue as some vessels may bypass the island for other destinations.
“No responsible political party seeking to form a government will engage in this type of irresponsible behavior. I call for peace, calm, respect for law and order and for the protesters to refrain from actions that cause persons harm and destruction to property. Put our country first. Your love of country will guide you as to how to behave and vote,” he said.
The latest rounds of unrest are not isolated. A year ago, protesters also clashed with police as they demanded the elections commission mandate the use of identification cards to avoid fraud. Such a recommendation was contained in a report from international electoral observers who witnessed the 2014 polls amid allegations of fraud in favor of the governing party.
As the cabinet was rebuilding after Hurricane Maria, the opposition was also questioning government about what has happened with about US$400 million in cash from the sale of passports and citizenship from the island citizenship-by-investment scheme. Dominica and several other Caribbean nations have similar programs through which they raise development finance by selling national passports and citizenship to wealthy foreigners.