Absence of the elected MP for Micoud South Allen Chastanet from a third consecutive meeting of the House of Assembly on Tuesday (September 14) led to much speculation about the constitutionality of his position in the House of Assembly and as the constituency’s District Representative – and even more uncertainty about the official position of parliamentary Opposition Leader.
Former Prime Minister Chastanet is still Leader of the opposition United Workers Party (UWP), but has three times failed to attend House meetings called since the first Joint Session of Parliament (August 17, August 31 and September 14).
The UWP has been only represented in the House by Choiseul-Saltibus Member of Parliament Bradley Felix, who explained, each time that his leader was abroad ‘on vacation’.
Chastanet was understandably expected to be back home in time for this week’s third meeting, failing which – it was widely claimed – he could be disqualified by the Speaker of the House if satisfactory reasons had not been submitted.
At the start of each of the three sessions – including the Joint one – Speaker Claudius Francis reported having ‘received communication from the Micoud South MP on his inability to be here today…’
After Tuesday’s meeting, the Choiseul MP was quoted as explaining his leader’s absence a third time by saying Mr Chastanet couldn’t be blamed for being unable to attend parliamentary meetings called while he was still on holiday.
Felix also interestingly referred to Chastanet as ‘Leader of the Opposition’, claiming that he also represented ‘all the 37,400’ persons who voted for the UWP on July 26.
But legal minds and parliamentary observers both argue that Felix would be terribly wrong to refer to Chastanet as ‘Leader of the Opposition’ as the UWP Leader has not been nominated, elected or appointed to that position.
Legal minds explain that under law, the parliamentary Opposition Leader is nominated by the majority of Opposition MPs – meaning, those not elected on the winning party’s ticket.
In the circumstances, there are supposed to be four such MPs in the current Lower House (or House of Assembly) – the two UWPs and the two Independents.
But no such nomination is known to have been made — to former Governor General Sir Neville Cenac, or to current Deputy Governor General Errol Charles — since the election; and no such appointment has been announced either, by the Speaker, or the Clerk of Parliament.
Mr Chastanet did (erroneously) announce himself as the new ‘Leader of the Opposition’ on his Facebook Page just a few days after his party was routed at the polls, but he was quickly and publicly corrected by former UWP Leader, Opposition Leader and Prime Minister, Stephenson King, who pointed to the protocols involved and confirmed no such appointment had been made.
But in the first fortnight after the election, the absent Mr. Chastanet’s private vehicle was parked daily in the official parking lot of the Leader of the Opposition in Castries, further compounding the confusion.
MP Felix’s continued reference to the UWP Leader as ‘Leader of the Opposition’ has been interpreted by one informed local media observer as ‘A terrible and revealing lack of understanding of the legal procedures and constitutional provisions pertaining to appointments to the post…’, while a rival politician found it ‘Very strange to believe he does not know the protocols involved, as this is his second term in the House…’
But even worse, according to a national political commentator, is the Choiseul MP’s ‘failure to recognize that not only has he been the only one representing the UWP in the parliament, but that the two Independents also have a say – and two votes – in the matter of who becomes Leader of the Opposition…’
But even worse is the biggest open secret: While Mr. Chastanet won the elections on July 26, he is yet to formally take the Oath of Office — meaning, he is not yet officially a Member of Parliament, far less Leader of the Opposition.
With a popular local talk show host close to Chastanet announcing (circa August 11) that Chastanet had formally resigned as UWP Leader, there was understandable speculation that it was either a symbolic move, or an effort to see who’ll come forward, or a sign the ex-Prime Minister may have decided to kick the political bucket, or simply bow-out of local politics to make way for anyone wishing to replace him in a bye-election.
Apart from Chastanet, only Felix can be the UWP’s candidate for parliamentary Opposition Leader, but in the current state-of-play, it’s being claimed in some political circles, he would need the support of the two independents.
It all looks and sounds like a parliamentary tragicomedy, but certainly not at all that funny for Senator Gubion Ferdinand, the SLP candidate who lost to Chastanet on July 26 and is now Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Education.
Responding to the Micoud South MP’s third consecutive absence, Ferdinand told reporters Chastanet was only interested in using the seat ‘as a stepping stone to become prime minister’ – and said he was ‘ready’ to be the constituency’s Member of Parliament.
There being no constitutional provision for a recall and no decision known to be under consideration or having been taken on Mr. Chastanet’s legal and constitutional parliamentary standing, Ferdinand can only hope that the UWP Leader decides not to take-up his position, or does not return home, disqualifying himself as an elected MP, leading to a bye-election.
Seventy years of history having been overturned in the neighboring Micoud North constituency (where a Labour candidate who lost a leg during the campaign won the seat on July 26 for the first time since Saint Lucians got the right to vote in 1950 and first voted in 1951) Ferdinand would (possibly) have been long-wishing (or dreaming) of equalizing in Micoud South for a second time (since Cass Elias won the seat held by former Prime Minister John Compton in 1997).
But the senator would only have had a better chance if constituents had the legal or constitutional ‘Right of Recall’.
Interestingly, just as Ferdinand spoke Tuesday, a second historic recall election was taking place in the US state of California, where Governor Gavin Newsom was being challenged over – among other things – his handling of the COVID pandemic in the most populous state in the USA.
The last California Governor to face a recall (in 2003) Democrat Gray Davis, was replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger for the Republicans, but 18 years later Newsom held on.
The question now being asked back home – especially in Micoud South – is: With Mr. Chastanet striking three times not-out, will he go for a fourth miss?
Only the UWP Leader knows…
But in the meantime, only the Choiseul-Saltibus MP remains the only one responsible for Opposition Business in the House — as if his party had suffered another 16-1 defeat on July 26.