Dominica elects first woman head of state

September 28, 2023 in Regional

Dominica Wednesday elected its first ever woman head of state overshadowed by opposition attempts to scuttle the “historic moment” and raising the possibility of the matter ending up before the courts here.

By a margin of 20-5, Dominican lawmakers, – six government ministers and one opposition legislator were absent for various reasons – voted in support of 58-year-old Sylvanie Burton, the government’s nominee, who had faced a challenge from Anette Sanford.

She will be sworn in on October 2.

Ironically both women are from the Kaliangoo Territory, where the descendants of the country’s indigenous people, the Caribs, still reside.

But the victory was overshadowed by an attempt by opposition legislator, Sean Douglas, who questioned whether Burton, had in fact met the requirements under the Dominica Constitution to be nominated, claiming that she was still employed as a senior public servant.

“The nominee has engaged in certain acts which offend the Public Service Act , in which if she is President warrant her removal from office and as such the House should not proceed on the election of the President as Sylvanie Burton being a candidate or nominee,” he said.

But Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, who lamented the fact that there had not been consensus in the nomination for the position of the island’s 12th head of state since independence in 1978, questioned the facts being presented by Douglas.

“All of what the Senator would have said in his arguments to the House to indicate that the candidate Sylvanie Burton is not qualified cannot stand,” he said, telling legislators that she had retired from the public service on September11 this year.

“What I would say to the Senator and I would ask him to research the very same arguments he is making in respect to Mrs Sylvanie Burton…is to ask him whether he has also investigated the qualification or disqualification of the Leader of the Opposition’s candidate and whether he is aware…that the arguments he is using against Mrs Sylvanie Burton that his candidate is in violation of that section of the Constitution”.

Skerrit moved for a five minute adjournment of the Parliament to allow Douglas to research the answer, but when it resumed, he was unable to answer the question, with Opposition Leader Jesma Paul Victor supporting the decision to continue with the balloting process.

However, Speaker Joseph Isaac, informed legislators that the matter could reach the Court of Appeal, saying that prior to the sitting of the Parliament today he had sought guidance on the question raised by the opposition legislator.

“I said this morning we were a little late because…we were dealing with the same qualification issue,” he said, adding “first I would say, the jurisdiction with regards to qualification has to be at the High Court, the Court of Appeal.

“So the House is not going to deal with the issue of qualification, we are going to proceed with the voting for the President,” Isaac said.

Following the vote, Skerrit praised the outgoing head of state for providing “a service of distinction, a service of commitment, a service of love of nation and a service to a country so vast, so profound, so sincere”.

But Skerrit said he was disappointed that the election of Burton was not an opportunity “for us to rally around one candidate and to show the world that on some things there can be unity of purpose.

“There really should not have been any reason for there not to have been one candidate. But, be as it may, that’s the democratic process and everybody has a right to determine how they do things and when they do things.”

Skerrit said it has not robbed Dominica of creating history and “it has not robbed women of an opportunity to be grateful and that a woman for the first time in the history of our country, has been recognised and elevated to this high office”.

He said, most importantly, it would not rob the Kalinago people, “the first people of our country of an opportunity that was lost in terms of the process, not the outcome, of having the first Kalinago person elected to the highest office in our country.

“I will say that history will not recognise those who did not support the Kalinagoo people in this effort to recognise them. It will not recognise them kindly and so we will not focus on the negative side of this, but we would rather focus on the positive side of this,” said Skerrit, describing today’s election as “a red letter day for the Kalinago people.

“I think that every woman in Dominica and indeed the world should be celebrating today…this historic occasion of a women being elected and not only a woman of any pedigree as we would say, but someone who has come from very, very challenging and humble beginnings.

“I believe by this act, the Parliament we have shattered all semblance of remembrance of classism in Dominica,” said an “emotional” Prime MInister Skerrit.

Mrs Burton has been a senior public servant since 2014 and when she retired was the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of the Environment, Rural Modernisation, Kalinago Upliftment and Constituency Empowerment.

She has been a Justice of the Peace for 25 years and holds Masters Degree in Project Management and a Bachelor’s Degree in Rural Development.

She is married and has two children.