18 December 2014

Autonomy is the overwhelming choice of voters in Sint Eustatius political status referendum

Special to
Overseas Territories Review

By C.L. de Otero
Associate Editor

(Oranjestad, Dec. 17) The political status option of Autonomy was the overwhelming victor among four choices in the December 17 constitutional referendum in Sint Eustatius, according to preliminary results revealed hours after the polls closed at 9:00 PM. 

The winning option of "Autonomy within the Kingdom" (of the Netherlands) virtually doubled the number of votes for the status quo option of “Public Entity” which is a form of partial integration with clear democratic deficiencies according to experts.


The voter turnout, estimated at almost 46 per cent, was below the threshold of 60 per cent required in the Island Council Referendum Ordinance. But since the exercise was non-binding, it is unclear whether this percentage would matter in the face of wide support for the Autonomy option. 

The possible disenfranchisement of an undetermined number of persons was seen by many as a factor in the turnout, with a number of potential voters being turned away at the polls by election officials who required voting cards before persons could be permitted inside the polling station to cast their ballot. It had been widely announced leading up to the referendum that voters would be able to use their proper identification without the need for the voting card, but voters were turned back in significant numbers, nevertheless. There were indications that most of those turned away were supporters of the Autonomy option. 

There were widespread reports that large numbers of potential voters had not received their voting cards by mail, with the documents being returned to the Census Office which was responsible for conducting the poll. That office had been shifted from the jurisdiction of the former Central Government in Curacao to the control of the Dutch Government following the imposition of the partially integrated public entity status in 2010. The poll was being conducted, in part, to endorse or reject such shift of jurisdiction from local to Dutch authorities which had been a constant theme in the run-up to the referendum.  

The conduct of the poll was accompanied by a significant change of rules traditionally governing island elections, according to several civil society leaders. The hours for the Census Office operations were extended past its announced closing time in an attempt to provide voters with the proper document to vote and to clarify the new rules in place. It was unclear, however, as to how many voting card issues were actually resolved unde the extended hours. 

Another matter which had arisen was the relocation of the voting station from the centrally-located Public Library to a lesser accessible locale in the countryside. Many voters outside the polling place commented on the difficulties encountered in organizing transportation to the site, especially for the elderly. 

It is still too early to determine the next steps in the process. On the one hand, those who favored the status quo option, which was so widely defeated, could argue for its continuation by default since the 60 per cent threshold had not been met. On the other hand, the autonomists have cited the overwhelming support expressed by the voters for the autonomy option even amid the obstacles its supporters encountered in voting, emphasizing that the tally would have been even stronger in their favor if so many of its supporters had not been denied the right to vote. 

In any case, just how the results of the December 17 referendum will be utilized in the future political development of this Dutch-controlled ‘public entity’ will likely be determined by the local political leadership which is facing island elections in March 2015. 

The reaction of the Dutch, meanwhile, will also be awaited since procedures were already underway to validate, or 'anchor', the current status in the Dutch Constitution. This would make it more difficult for any future change of status. The overwhelming support for Autonomy might give them pause, at least until the conclusion of the Dutch evaluation of the present status slated to be completed by the end of 2015. 

Many autonomist advocates, on the other hand, have emphasized that the public entity status does not meet international standards of full self-government, and had argued for a referendum on the self-governing political options of independence, free association and integration as recognized by the United Nations. Many had called for the U.N. listing of Sint Eustatius as a non self-governing territory of the U.N. Decolonization Committee in order that a proper self-determination process could be instituted. This call may become much louder if the clear choice of the voters for autonomy is somehow ignored by island and Kingdom authorities.


For background on the Sint Eustatius referendum, see:

Sint Eustatius political status referendum set for December 17