Dominica’s neighbors Wednesday appealed for calm and good order in the wake of stifling opposition-led protests ahead of general elections on Dec. 6.
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 protesters are angry that the island of 72,000 is heading into another election cycle without reforms of the elections system and fears that if the UWP participates in the polls, it could in fact remain on opposition benches for another five years.
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit’s Dominica Labor Party (DLP) is seeking a fifth consecutive five year term and has called a snap elections, hoping to cash in on the success of the reconstruction of the island’s infrastructure after the devastation from Hurricane Maria in late 2017.
Gaston Browne, prime minister of nearby Antigua and current chair of the nine-nation Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) of which Dominica is a member, 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.
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 leading to 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 candidates for various parties and constituencies filed papers on nomination day on Tuesday.
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 the 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 protestors 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 voters to use 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$500 million in cash from the sale of passports and citizenship from the island’s 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.