The road to the Gumbs I cabinet: “Peddling seats to the highest bidder”

POSTED: 12/22/14 12:12 AM

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – When Governor Drs. Eugene Holiday administers the oath of office to the five ministers of the Gumbs I cabinet this afternoon, it marks the end of a tedious process that started during the night after the parliamentary elections on August 29. How did we get where we are today? A review.

To avoid any misunderstandings, the governor also administers the oath to the minister plenipotentiary today – but that is not a ‘real’ minister – it is the representative of St. Maarten in The Hague.

When the results of the elections came in in late August, the United People’s party became within a brief timespan the winner and the loser at the same time. The UP, under the leadership of Theo Heyliger, went into the elections with one goal – an absolute majority to prevent the hassle of coalition-agreements.

It was not to be. The UP won 7 seats, one short of its objective. The National Alliance (NA, 4 seats), the Democratic Party (DP, 2) and newcomer United St. Maarten party (USp, 2) seemed to be at the winner’s mercy. In mature democracies it is an unwritten rule that the winner of the elections get the first opportunity to form a new government. That does justice to the wishes the voters have expressed on Election Day.

That was not to be either: when UP-leader Theo Heyliger woke up the next morning, he found that NA, DP and USp had found each other in a blitz-consultation that almost seemed to be pre-cooked.

Party-leaders William Marlin, Sarah Wescot-Williams and Frans Richardson signed a handwritten note around 4 a.m. at the Bute Hotel, with the text: “The undersigned representatives of the National Alliance, St. Maarten United People’s Party and the Democratic Party hereby pledge their support to form the next government of St. Maarten for the governing period 2014-2018. Further details of the governing program and the division of responsibilities will be sorted out in the next couple of days.”

There was of course a remarkable mistake in this note: there is no party called St. Maarten United People’s Party. That should have been the United St. Maarten party, but nobody paid much attention to this now forgotten detail.

Governor Holiday appointed NA-leader William Marlin as formateur and instructed him to submit his report by September 24.

While members of the three coalition-partners went to work on their governing program, things started brewing. Nobody expected that the UP would sit by idly awaiting the birth of a government in which it had no role to play, and the people were not disappointed.

Already on September 5, USp-leader Frans Richardson was more or less forced to hold a press conference with his number 2 candidate Leona Marlin-Romeo, after rumors spread that she was about to become the first ship-jumper of the new political season. There were also rumors that Marlin-Romeo had accepted money for changing her political alliance.

“I am a member of the United St. Maarten party. That is where the people asked me to be and that is where I shall stay,” Marlin-Romeo said during that press conference, adding later, “I am standing next to Frans Richardson and I am not going anywhere.”

It was a believable performance and it may even have been true at that moment – but it did not last.

On the very day formateur William Marlin submitted his report to Governor Holiday – and was granted an extension to complete his work by October 3, there were new signs of trouble. The DP’s number 2 vote-getter Cornelius de Weever became the real first ship-jumper of the season.

The next day, indeed, UP-leader Heyliger presented his coalition agreement to Governor Holiday. His majority was based on the seven UP-seats in the new Parliament plus the now seemingly independent MP Cornelius de Weever.

The next day, the governor appointed Marcel Gumbs and Joe Richardson as informateurs. These appointments opened the door to new speculations, in particular about the possibility of DP-leader Sarah-Wescot-Williams – robbed of one seat by the untimely departure of Cornelius de Weever –joining the coalition and thus having a shot of keeping her party in one piece.

In the meantime, the UP approached Finance Minister Martin Hassink with the request to stay on his post in the new government, but Hassink did not immediately accept.

A bitter NA-leader William Marlin noted during a press conference on September 28 that political instability is here to stay. “It is a matter of time before you will see another shift,” he said. “There is not a problem with the system, but there are too many who approach this like, I have my seat and I am going to peddle it to the highest bidder.”

On October 4, informateurs Gumbs and Richardson submit their report to the governor. The seven UP-MPs and Cornelius de Weever signed the governing accord 2014-2018, which is art of the report. Two days later, the governor appointed Heyliger as the next formateur.

On October 10, there was a new, yet not entirely unexpected, development: DP-leader Wescot-Williams joins the UP-coalition and – surprise, surprise – so does Leona Marlin-Romeo who had claimed 35 days earlier with a straight face: “I am not going anywhere.” This brought the support for the UP-led government to 10 seats in the 15-seat Parliament.

Wescot-Williams was elected the chair of the new Parliament, Marlin-Romeo the first vice chair and De Weever the second vice-chair. It felt like a deal had been made, but it would soon become clear that it was not one for the ages.

For a few days in mid-October the weather took precedence over politics when Hurricane Gonzalo hit the island on Tuesday, October 14. There was however another hurricane close on its heels and this one came from The Hague, where Kingdom Relations Minister Ronald Plasterk put the appointment of the Heyliger-cabinet on hold, after being made aware that Heyliger would become the next prime minister. He announced additional screening of candidate-ministers, to be executed by the Dutch secret service AIVD.

Heyliger reacted furious and called the decision a witch hunt directed at his person. Heyliger had earlier said that he would become the prime minister of the new cabinet, but after Plasterk’s instruction to Governor Holiday he changed his mind and decided to stay in parliament – a move that could also be interpreted as a clever move to defuse the tension in the relationship with big brother Holland.

Prime Minister Wescot-Williams revealed that Plasterk had asked her to let the Dutch secret service operate in St. Maarten under the flag of St. Maarten’s secret service, the VDSM, “to carry out the screening according to the criteria set by the minister.”

There is no difference between that line of action and the screening-instruction to the governor. “It was to be on my instruction to the secret service and it was not to be made public. Of course, I objected,” Wescot-Williams stated on October 20 in this newspaper.

The Parliament passed a motion asking the governor to reject the Kingdom’s instruction, but nothing came of it. The governor did not let himself be drawn into a political discussion and simply executed his instructions, even though the instruction itself seemed to be at odds with the constitution, according to some observers.

There was a rather toothless march against the instruction on October 26 but it was mainly a United People’s party affair. Representatives of other parties did not show up.

It did not take long before new rumors began to circulate – like the one that Marcel Gumbs was in the crosshairs as the new prime minister. Formateur Heyliger said in a press statement that this assumption was “speculative” – yet later on it turned out to be true.

On November 3, the outgoing Council of Ministers sent a letter to Plasterk, saying that it would not cooperate with the additional screening the Dutch imposed on candidate-ministers. Plasterk’s answer was straightforward: candidates that do not cooperate with the screening will not be appointed.

On November 7, formateur Heyliger got again additional time from the governor to present his cabinet. The new deadline: November 30.

On November 13, this newspaper published a story about a new twist in the formation-process: the Democratic Party withdrew its support, and party-leader Wescot-Williams made her position as president of Parliament available.

The reason for the DP’s departure was that formateur Heyliger ignored the candidates the party put forward for the positions at Tourism and Economic Affairs and at the Public Health Department. Emil Lee and Yvette Halley were the DP’s nominees, but behind the party’s back, Cornelius de Weever pushed two other names: his uncle Leroy de Weever for Public Health and Rita Bourne-Gumbs for the Ministry of Education.

Ultimately, this would lead to the break-up of the DP-faction, and on November 28, the DP sent De Weever an ultimatum to fight the termination of his membership. There was no reaction.

While November lumbered to its end, formateur Heyliger asked the governor again for more time to form his cabinet. The new deadline became December 16 – last Tuesday.

On Wednesday, December 4, a shadow fell over the UP-faction in parliament, as its freshly elected member Silvio Matser heard the prosecution demand a 24-month prison sentence against him for tax evasion. The prosecution also demanded a 4.5 million guilders fine of Matser’s construction company Energizer.

On December 11, 63 days after he signed a solo-coalition agreement with the UP, Cornelius de Weever finally resigned from the Democratic Party.

On social media rumors were rife about the reasons why several candidate-ministers had “failed the screening.” While these stories were based on hearsay and no candidate was approached to confirm or deny the state of affairs, they started to lead a life of their own. It was the clearest example yet of a probably paid attempt to influence the makeup of the next government.

Based on results, several candidates indeed met their political Waterloo in the screening process, but the reasons why candidates did not make it, are quite different from the brutal and baseless suggestions social media scribblers want people to believe.

Today, the country is able to put this melee to rest and focus on truly important matters – like the 2015 budget and repairing the bruised relationship with the Netherlands.

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The road to the Gumbs I cabinet: “Peddling seats to the highest bidder” by

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