Published On: Sat, Sep 24th, 2016

“Parties are distributing tons of money”


DP candidate Perry Geerlings says: “St. Maarten is run like a grocery store.” Photo Today / Hilbert Haar

GREAT BAY – A man who speaks his mind and, he says, is considered a traitor because of it by some, is Democratic Party candidate number 4 Perry Geerlings, currently the director of the Cabinet of the Minister Plenipotentiary in The Hague. He knows the corridors of political power in the Netherlands but he is equally well-informed about what is happening in St. Maarten.

Most logical question: why would someone with a comfortable and steady job in The Hague want to get involved in the highly volatile political arena in St. Maarten?

“Yeah, I could sit back, take care of my family, take a vacation and be satisfied with my job,” he admits. “But that is not enough for me. I do not want to leave this earth without at least some people having benefited from the fact that I have lived.”

Geerlings was for the first time a candidate for the Democratic Party in 2010. In 2014 he came back, winning 129 votes. “I want to be a part of the community where I live,” he says. “I am concerned about what is happening in St. Maarten. Things can be better and must get better. And politics is the place where you have to be if you want to change things. I am really interested in what is happening around me.”

Geerlings, born in Suriname, came in 1989 to St. Maarten where he worked for 21 years at Smitco in business and asset management. He was also the chairman of the board of the Cadastre, before his move to the cabinet of the minister plenipotentiary.

“People can live here for years without knowing that the English they speak in Middle Region is different from the English they speak in Cole Bay,” he observes. “I am going out there, because I am interested in how people live. I am very accessible and at the same time maybe a bit naive.”

“What often irritates me,” he says, “is that remark: you are not from here. That hurts, because I participate in everything and still at times I am regarded as a second class citizen.”

His move to St. Maarten came after he saw how the society in the Netherlands deteriorated. “I thought I would not get a fair chance there,” he says. “Here you have to work extremely hard to make it. If you are lazy you are not going to make it.”

Geerlings has campaigned consistently with the same slogan since 2010: For a livable St. Maarten. “I am not going to change that,” he says. “You have to stand for something and this is my story. You see all these candidates coming up with something different every time. But I say: develop a vision, stand for something. I am not a politician, I am an activist.”

Geerlings says that he actively participates in community life. “I go into the districts with my campaign, I explain the everyday reality. The reality of most people is survival of the fittest. I tell young people: pose two questions to candidates. The first one is: what is the function of the parliament? The second one: what is the function of a parliamentarian?”

“The function of a parliamentarian,” Geerlings emphasizes, “is to control that the government is properly executing its governing program. This is what being a parliamentarian in the Netherlands is all about – calling ministers to account in the parliament. Here you see candidates and parliamentarians making all kinds of empty promises they cannot live up to.”

Geerlings says that speaking his mind has caused him plenty of trouble. “I am not sugarcoating anything,” he says, before diving into the most controversial topic of all: vote buying. “Also this time parties are distributing tons of money. It is happening in the districts right now. But if politics wants to mature, we need a level playing field. How can young candidates compete with all that money? Impossible. We need to turn this around and the only ones who are able to do that are the voters.”

Geerlings is seriously bothered by the injustice he observes. “You have to do something with it,” he says. “But it is difficult to stand up for something here without consequences. People tell me: have you gone mad? You have a good job; why would you stick your head into this snake pit?”

The DP-candidate says that he coined the phrase back to basics. “My good friend Maurice Lake took off with it,” he says with a smile. “It is time to reflect on what it exactly means. Gebe is filthy rich and could help, but all we see are futile projects while not enough money goes to education. There is segregation in education. The public schools struggle to survive, while the private schools put up new buildings and have money to invest in computers and other facilities.”

The temptation to send children to a private school is there, he admits. “But I sent my children to a public school, because they must know and experience what is happening around them.”

About the near future, Geerlings is not all optimistic. “If things continue the way they do, the people will rise up. It is shameful that children are hungry, that 13 and 14-year old girls get pregnant. But if you are not going to vote nothing will change. I say: take to the streets, let your voice be heard. Politicians here do not know what it is to work under pressure; they just do what they feel like.”

Geerlings is a proponent of a district system and the establishment of district councils that are accountable to the government. “That would create a continuous interaction; we have to allocate money for that,” he says. “District elections will give our democracy a stronger basis. I also favor the direct election of ministers.”

There is “a chronic lack of vision” in the current political system Geerlings says. “The problem of the dump could have been solved already. All over the world governments are taking adequate action with waste-to-energy plants. But we have to be serious about this, it has to be a government project, not something with a private company in between, where somebody is profiting from it. This should not be outsources to the private sector.”

Geerlings is aware of how some people see him: “They see me as a traitor who wants to sell out St. Maarten to the Netherlands. But St. Maarten is run like a grocery store with one owner where the rest is allowed to pack plastic bags and hope for a dollar. If you say things like this aloud you are considered a traitor.”

Politicians should have a role model function, Geerlings says. “Instead they are doing stuff that is not allowed and then they want a second and a third chance.”

Among his sources of irritation are the political billboards. “Away with them,” he says. “Do something useful with that money. And talking about sports facilities – we don’t need fantastic facilities. What we need is giving the opportunity to practice sports. I too played soccer on the streets. What also bothers me is the infighting among sports clubs; the children suffer from it.”

Returning to another political issue – the quality of the parliament – Geerlings observes: “The parliament should be a reflection of the community – and it isn’t. People have to wake up. We need unity to make progress and with what DP-Minister Lee has accomplished we have shown that you do not need years to arrive at solutions. You are valued for the quality you deliver.”

Geerlings campaigns for the establishment of a 5-day workweek for parliamentarians and for a salary cut if they continue to work just three days a week. He also favors the screening of parliamentarians, anti-corruption legislation and putting a stop to direct links between parliamentarians and ministers. He also wants MPs to remove themselves from the parliament once they become the subject of a criminal investigation or after they have been convicted.