Leader of the Opposition Stephenson King (L) and United Workers Party (UWP) political leader Allen Chastanet
By Caribbean News Now contributor
CASTRIES, St Lucia -- Prior disagreements within the opposition United Workers Party (UWP) in Saint Lucia, which were exacerbated
in the aftermath of the Christmas storm, appear to have deepened into a serious rift between two competing factions.
Differences first became apparent last month when leader of the parliamentary opposition in Saint Lucia, former prime minister Stephenson King, denied “passing on the mantle
” of leadership to the new political leader of the UWP, Allen Chastanet.
The UWP has been struggling for some months to deal with a dichotomy of leadership roles after Chastanet was elected to replace former party leader King. However, as Chastanet has no seat in parliament, King has remained the official leader of the parliamentary opposition – a constitutional office appointed by the governor general.
Following the recent storm, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony invited King as opposition leader to a meeting with the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) in order to discuss the way forward regarding the resulting damage, which King attended as invited.
Chastanet apparently took offence at King’s “unilateral decision” to attend such meeting without first seeking approval and direction from the UWP executive. According to Chastanet, this was not the first time that King has “aggrieved the party” by making such unilateral decisions.
In a letter to King on December 31, 2013, Chastanet wrote: “At present you are the party’s leader in parliament and, as such the party’s spokesperson with government. However, all policies and decisions related to the party are to be made by the party as a whole and your role is to give voice to such policies and decisions. We cannot progress as a party otherwise. Recent unilateral declarations and decisions made by you have aggrieved the party as a whole and have caused concerns about the direction in which the party is heading.”
Although Chastanet acknowledged that King did call to brief him, he complained that this was after the meeting.
“In my view, the more appropriate action would have been to inform me prior to the meeting in order for the executive to determine collectively who should have attended on the party’s behalf,” Chastanet said in his letter.
He went on to summon King to a meeting with all party parliamentarians on Monday, which summons was described by a long-standing UWP official as “downright rude and out of place.”
In a written response to Chastanet on January 3, 2014, King pointed out that Saint Lucia is faced with deaths, structural damage, economic disaster among other ills, a situation that begged for immediate collaboration.
“Bearing in mind my constitutional obligation coupled with my determination to assist our people with due dispatch, I did, and would still attend, if this occasion arises again,” he said.
King also pointed out that he did not call the meeting with the prime minister but, rather, an invitation was extended to him in his capacity as leader of the parliamentary opposition.
“It therefore cannot be the place of the party leadership to override my invitation by the prime minister to attend his meeting, by seeking to make the choice as to whether I am entitled to attend or whether someone else should attend in my stead,” he stated.
King emphasised that he has been in active politics for the last 32 years and has made “caring for the people” the hallmark of his career. In the face of this national disaster, the time-consuming exercise of seeking Chastanet’s approval before deciding to attend the meeting would not have been in sync with the “good of the country” referred to in Chastanet’s letter.
King continued that he did not understand the need for a meeting with the party MPs at this point, which he described as “redundant”.
“Moving forward, there is urgent need for all concerned to recognize the difference between government and the party, so as to avoid such misconceptions as to the roles of each position. This cannot be over-emphasized,” King added.
In acknowledging King’s response to his letter, Chastanet said in an email it is precisely "to avoid these misconceptions” that King identified, “…that a majority of opposition parliamentarians and I have determined the necessity for a meeting.”
However, in comments to Caribbean News Now, one party insider questioned Chastanet’s claim of a “majority of opposition parliamentarians” since at least three out of the six UWP members of parliament are believed to support King and not Chastanet.
In the event, King informed other party members that he was not able to attend the meeting arranged for Monday night, since he had prior appointments, one of which was to attend the funeral service of the young police officer who died on duty during the storm.
In another pointed comment, one party member said, “I guess this (the funeral) was not important enough for them.”
Meanwhile, according to UWP sources, Chastanet and other party members have been holding a number of "unconstitutional" meetings at which critical decisions are taken but to which King is not invited to attend.
“This so called ‘core’ group meets, we are told, every Monday, after which decisions are handed down to the executive and or chairpersons for rubber stamping. So Chastanet’s claim that Mr King is not cooperating is a total lie,” one person said.
In the meantime, there were unconfirmed reports on Monday night that UWP had made a decision to dismiss King as the official leader of the parliamentary opposition. This follows similar reports last week that the UWP may ask the governor general to remove King and replace him with another UWP member of parliament, Guy Joseph.
Under section 67 of the constitution, the governor-general shall appoint as leader of the opposition the member of the House who appears to her most likely to command the support of a majority of the members of the House who do not support the government; or, if no member of the House appears to command such support, the member of the House who appears to command the support of the largest single group of members of the House who do not support the government.
If it appears to the governor-general that the leader of the opposition is no longer able to command the support of a majority of the members of the House who do not support the Government or (if no member of the House appears to be able to command such support) the support of the largest single group of members of the House who do not support the government, the governor-general shall remove the leader of the opposition from office.
The power of the governor-general under this section shall be exercised by her in her own deliberate judgment.
Given the deepening divisions within the party, it is not known at this point whether the UWP would in fact secure a majority of its elected MPs to be able to oust King as leader of the opposition. The UWP currently has six elected members and a defection of just half of them would, including King, render the party impotent, since it is assumed that the governor general would follow parliamentary convention in the event of a tie and preserve the status quo
The UWP has not so far responded to a request for comment made several days ago.
Meanwhile, Chastanet, a former tourism minister, has another battle to fight in that he is facing a civil action
filed by the Attorney General’s Chambers, alleging conduct amounting to a “breach of his fiduciary duties as a minister of government, in bad faith and/or constitutes misfeasance in public office”.
According to the statement of claim, Chastanet while a minister of government and UWP candidate requested the sum of $38,119 of public funds from the Soufriere Town Council for the unlawful purpose of a campaign and political event for his personal and political benefit or the benefit of his political party.
It further claims that Chastanet knew or ought to have known or was recklessly indifferent that the conduct in question was unlawful.
In response, the UWP accused the St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) administration of using the outcome of a questionable audit as a tool for political mischief.
“It is evident by these actions that the Labour Party administration is intending to diminish the ability of Mr Chastanet and the main opposition to challenge the government on critical issues pertaining to the plight of the citizens,” the party said.