20 January 2010

British Virgin Islands’ Political Culture

by Benito Wheatley

Over the last two election cycles, rule of the Government of the Virgin Islands has alternated between the Virgin Islands Party (VIP) and the National Democratic Party (NDP). The shifting of power between the two reflects the public’s general dissatisfaction with the overall governance of the territory under both VIP and NDP governments. The NDP’s election defeat in 2007 and the VIP’s election defeat in 2003 attest to this fact. The consecutive defeats of both ruling parties suggests that the source of public dissatisfaction is not explicitly with the parties themselves, but rather their governing style, and more broadly, the style of governance practiced in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). In simpler terms, the public’s underlying concern is the BVI’s political culture and its negative impact upon the society as a whole.

The overall performance of both the NDP and VIP governments did not live up to the expectations of the electorate in terms of the territory’s progress and development. While both governments can lay claim to many achievements, several aspects of the society are today worse off than at any other time in history and continue to deteriorate. Elements of the BVI’s political culture have helped to undermine government’s effectiveness in managing the territory’s affairs. More specifically, certain political practices engaged in by both the NDP and VIP governments were not in keeping with the good governance of the territory.

Following election victories in 2003 and 2007, both parties engaged in political patronage by removing previously appointed officials from their posts and replacing them with their own political operatives or party supporters. This practice was not necessarily merit-based or focused on appointing the most qualified person for the job. Political patronage also figured prominently in the economic sector with the awarding of government contracts to each of the parties’ preferred companies or highly favored businessmen. Coupled with the issue of political patronage was the problem of political victimization, which was also witnessed under NDP and VIP governments. In some instances, certain elected officials and government appointees threatened and punished civil servants and other residents who expressed disagreement with the government or spoke out on certain issues. Political victimization muzzled a certain segment of the population and in effect restricted elements of free speech in the BVI.

Perhaps the political practice most destructive to the governing of the territory was the NDP and VIP’s “headstrong” approach to governance that is a staple of BVI politics. The NDP and VIP pursued various agendas contrary to public opinion and the advice of technical experts. Certain policies were formulated and projects implemented under the pretext that a minister or the party knew what was best for the territory and that there was no need for consultation with the public on certain matters. This headstrong approach was a critical factor in the NDP’s defeat in 2007, where popular support for the party was lost after the NDP government made the decision to proceed with a controversial five-star hotel project on Beef Island that was vehemently opposed by environmental and community groups. In recent months the VIP government took a similar course of action by installing traffic lights at the roundabout against the wishes of the public and contrary to the technical advice of consultants. The “rescue the people from themselves” mentality damaged the credibility of both parties.

Another feature of BVI politics that helped to undermine the good governance of the territory was the lack of sufficient transparency in the NDP and VIP’s handling of government affairs. Under both governments, various contracts were negotiated under a veil of secrecy. The governments failed to adequately consult stakeholders or to disclose the governments’ intentions to the public. Their argument for less transparency and consultation followed that if the government were to consult the public on every issue nothing would get done. Politicians must accept that democracy is a consultative process which requires transparency and input from the people affected by decisions made by their government, even if it slows the pace at which government works.

Finally, underlying the political behavior of the NDP and VIP governments was the electoral need to satisfy local constituencies. Both governments launched projects directed at certain districts that were not necessarily implemented for the overall benefit of the territory. Rather, in too many instances, district projects focused solely on what was good for a particular constituency as opposed to the population at large. An example of this is the gym in BellVue. Prior to its construction, the BVI was in desperate need of an indoor recreational facility. However, BellVue was not an ideal location and travel to the area was inconvenient for most residents of other communities. Nonetheless, district politics prevailed and the gym was built under a VIP government. A few years later it became clear that the facility’s location did not serve the greater needs of the general public and a new recreational facility was constructed in Road Town (which presently serves a greater proportion of the territory’s population). Presumably, local constituencies will continue to drive BVI politics as long as electoral districts hold the key to re-election.

If the negative political practices engaged in by both NDP and VIP governments during their terms are not curbed, the progress and development of the territory will continue to be stymied. Certain measures are required to diminish the BVI’s poor political practices. 

First, it must be recognized that the structure of the BVI’s political system (Westminster model) enabled the previous two governments to engage in political abuses by empowering the ruling parties to dominate the legislature with few checks on their power over decision making. Structural changes are needed to check the power of the government in the legislature, as well as the power of elected officials to victimize civil servants. Within the House of Assembly, on critical pieces of legislation, a two-thirds majority should be required for passage of a bill. For example, this approach can be applied to financial matters such as government borrowing that exceeds a certain monetary threshold (e.g., $30 million) within a fiscal year. Such a measure could help to encourage greater debate in the House of Assembly and compel the government to exercise fiscal restraint and prudence in the overall management of the territory’s affairs.

With respect to political victimization, the recent establishment of the Office of the Complaints Commissioner (i.e., Ombudsman) was a good start to addressing this problem. However, major questions remain about the powers, authority, and independence of the Ombudsman relative to other branches of government. Does the Ombudsman have the power to challenge an elected official or to protect a civil servant in cases involving abuse of power by their superiors? The interplay of the Ombudsman and other branches of government will reveal the future effectiveness of the office in curbing political victimization at the highest levels.

As it concerns government transparency, stronger disclosure requirements are needed in the procurement process. Prior to the approval of contracts entered into by government, a review period (e.g., two weeks) should be allowed during which the public can review the details of a contract if it exceeds a certain monetary threshold (e.g., $100,000). This would allow interested parties to assess the contract and engage their elected official if there are any concerns. Transparency of this kind would make the government more open and responsive to its citizens and help to diminish political patronage in the awarding of contracts.

Lastly, minimizing political patronage in the making of political appointments can be achieved by holding public confirmation hearings where candidates are interviewed before an independent body. This process would give members of the public an opportunity to observe candidates and asses their level of competency for the position. This measure would open up the process to public scrutiny and allow citizens to determine whether the government has selected the most qualified candidate for the job.

In conclusion, while VIP and NDP governments genuinely attempted to improve the condition of the territory, the poor political practices in which they engaged hampered their efforts to succeed in rapidly modernizing the BVI and solving some of its most pressing social, environmental, economic, and infrastructural problems. Until these political practices are addressed, the public will remain dissatisfied with the performance of government, and the political pendulum will continue to swing back and forth between the NDP, VIP, or any other political party that fails to abandon the poor political practices that are currently a feature of BVI politics.

Benito Wheatley is a Researcher for the publication International Affairs Forum in Arlington, Virginia and is also an Analyst in the International Affairs and Services Department at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority in Washington, DC. Please direct comments or questions to mailto:bwheatley@ai-forum.org