Opposition MP’s condemn restriction on public attendance at swearing-in ceremony and call on supporters to turn out

Members of the Opposition Bench who are scheduled to take their oath of office tomorrow, Friday, February 17, are demanding that the by-invitation-only restriction on attendance be lifted.

In a February 15 letter from the Acting Clerk to Parliament, each Opposition parliamentarian was issued 10 invitations to the swearing-in ceremony – a move they condemn as “undemocratic and highly dictatorial” – and one that has no precedent in the history of the Parliament.

In a press statement issued on Thursday afternoon, the members – comprising Opposition Leader L. Jamale Pringle and his five colleagues; Trevor Walker, leader of the Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM); and independent MP for St. Peter Asot Michael – accused Prime Minister Gaston of “[breaching] the separation of powers protocol.”

The statement notes that “the democratic practice for the people’s participation … provides for attendance on a first-come first-served basis. It has always been up to the people, in the spirit of their involvement in the election process, to witness their elected representatives take the oath of office.”

Reportedly, the excuse given for excluding the Opposition MP’s supporters is that members of the diplomatic corps have been invited to the ceremony.  

However, the Opposition Bench is rejecting what it deems this “convenient departure from settled practice … [to] limit the space available for members of the public.”

Further, in a letter to Speaker of the House Sir Gerald Watt, delivered on Thursday morning, Opposition Leader Pringle notes that “such persons (diplomats) are traditionally invited to the Throne and Budget Speeches – not to the swearing-in of the people’s representatives.

“Accordingly,” Pringle writes, “we call upon you to rescind the decision to limit the attendance of the electorate and, specifically, the supporters of the Opposition Bench who, already, have waited long enough for this event.   

“To do otherwise will send the negative message that democracy – defined as ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’ – is under threat in Antigua and Barbuda.”

However, the Speaker directed Pringle to Attorney-General Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin, minister of legal affairs, since, he said, the directive on the invitations was not his.  

The Opposition Leader subsequently told REAL News that he had brought the matter to Benjamin’s attention, but had received no definite answer on whether the restriction would be lifted.

In the meantime, Pringle’s letter put the Administration on notice that the Opposition Members will be “encouraging those persons who wish to attend Friday’s ceremony to do so – in their usual respectful and dignified manner – until capacity in the gallery has been reached.”

The press release points out that invitation-only restriction “means there will be only 80 seats, or 28 percent of the 290-seat gallery” reserved for supporters of the Opposition Bench, whose members “represent 47 percent of the 17 constituencies and 53 percent of the popular vote in the January 18, 2023 General Election.”

Parliamentary observers note that the current Opposition Bench – of eight seats – is the largest in the history of the Parliament.

 Accordingly, they see the Browne Administration’s attempt to limit supporters’ participation as not only an affront to democracy but a sign of cowardice by the leadership.

It is not known how many invitations were accorded to each MP on the Government side.