ST. VINCENT: – Political observers say the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) has a real chance of winning the Dec. 13 general elections, denying Dr Ralph Gonsalves and his Unity Labour Party (ULP) an historic third consecutive term for a labour government.
The NDP being a real challenge is not merely by default; that is, not only because it is the only other major political party in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG).
Some critics suggest that the governing ULP may have handed the elections to the opposition over what they describe as the poor management of the country’s affairs.
Defying the odds
Party leader Arnhim Eustace, an economist, has defied the odds and predictions by pundits to revive the NDP after a crushing defeat in March 2001, after 17 years in office.
The trouncing came just three years after Eustace won his East Kingstown seat for the first time and five months after he inherited the prime ministership from NDP founder Sir James Mitchell.
The first five years in opposition was not enough for the party to rebound and Eustace has admitted that between 2001 and 2003, it was often difficult to even get a quorum to hold the party’s internal meetings.
The NDP lost the Dec. 2005 elections, with the same 12 to three margin, and Eustace was the only NDP candidate on mainland St. Vincent to retain his seat.
Oft described as being “soft” and criticised for his apparent lack of charisma and his “weak” style of leadership, Eustace has a style of politics that is markedly different but which, over the past 12 years, has grown on a large segment of the Vincentian electorate.
He has capitalised on the failings of the Gonsalves administration to the extent that the ULP would be ill-advised not to acknowledge the possibility that it could be on the left side of Parliament come Dec. 14.
If the Constitution Referendum last Nov. were elections, the ULP would have retained just two seats in Parliament, including Gonsalves’.
However, with objective polls few and far in between in SVG, citizens and other observers often depend on social commentators to measure the political pulse of the nation and to give some indication as to how the vote might go.
Pundits agree that the NDP could very well form the government on Dec. 14. However, their consensus is also that this will be no easy task. At least one poll has indicated that a 6 to 7 percent swing in favour of the NDP is necessary for the party to sweep to office.
“On the part of the opposition, it has to convince the people of the country that it is a different party than that which was removed from office in 2001,” historian Dr Adrian Fraser says in a recent column in Searchlight.
While Renwick Rose, who is also a Searchlight columnist, thinks that this campaign is “very similar to those of the past three elections” he says that the difference is that “there is intensity to the opposition challenge”.
“This is born out of a deluded confidence that stopping Dr Gonsalves in his attempt to have a new Constitution approved last year, would by itself be a recipe for general election victory, and a growing fear that the anticipated victory could slip through its finger,” Rose says.
The NDP has been encouraged by the outcome of the Constitution Referendum of Nov. 2009, which pundits say was a vote on the stewardship of Gonsalves and the ULP.
Some 29,019 voters, representing 55.64 per cent of the ballots cast, sided with the opposition and voted “no” while 22,493 voters or 43.13 per cent, endorsed the proposed changes to the nation’s Constitution.
But, as Jomo Thomas in his column in The Vincentian rightly notes, “a referendum is not an election”.
He says that constituency issues, candidates, the national economy, crime and violence, and party leadership “make for a world of difference”.
“These differences must not be over emphasized, especially where a referendum campaign was essentially turned in a political campaign,” Thomas says.
Thomas further notes that in the Dec. 2005 elections, 57,596 valid votes were cast with the ruling ULP receiving 31, 848 or 55.26 per cent while the NDP got 25, 748 or 44.68 per cent.
In the referendum last year, the “No” vote garnered 55.64 per cent or 29,020 of the valid votes while the “Yes” campaign carried 43.13 per cent or 22, 493 of the 52,166 votes cast.
“If the 20 per cent increase in votes cast in the referendum represents a NDP high point, and the ULP can manage a massive get out the vote drive that gives it most of the 5,000 persons who voted in 2005, but not in the referendum, plus a majority of newly registered voters or persons who never voted before, Gonsalves can lead his party to victory again,” Thomas says.
Thomas, who is also general secretary of the socio-political group People’s Movement for Change, also says that many voters “turned off with Gonsalves and the ULP openly express the view that they do not think the NDP is ready or able to steer the ship of state in these difficult times”.
Gonsalves has also tried to pitch the campaign in that regard, saying, “A leader’s vision and philosophy are important to consider”.
In what reads like an autobiographical sketch, Gonsalves further says “a leader’s ideas, a history of struggle on behalf of the people…training, education and life experiences are worthy of assessment”.
“…the track record of a leader in office provides a sound basis on which to assess his credibility, his honestly, competence, abilities, instincts, character, and performance,” he says.
Gonsalves also tries to associate those attributes with his candidates, although he is facing the electorate with eight new faces as many of his main ministers, including his deputy and minister of foreign affair, Sir Louis Straker, quit electoral politics.
But while Gonsalves describes his “dream team” as a blend of eight “fresh faces” and “the magnificent seven political veterans”, Fraser says the ULP has a “group of untested recruits” and the NDP “has a group that has been untested in terms of political office”.
But Gonsalves has told his supporters that the “dream team contains persons with a range of skills, training, experiences, interests and aptitudes, fit for the purpose of collective leadership”.
However, at the official launching of the team last Sunday, the incoming players gave little indication of the specific role they might play in Gonsalves’ Cabinet.
That launching came days after Eustace delivered his “we believe” speech, hailed by some of his supporters as his best speech this campaign season.
But while Eustace borrows from Martin Luther King, as he speaks of the NDP’s “dream” for SVG, his speech is essential devoid of any solid pronouncements on how his party intends to move SVG forward.
He, however, highlights some of the failings of the Gonsalves administration, saying the country “is not doing well … the poor is getting poorer … our health services are no good” and children are left behind, despite the “education revolution”.
The former Minister of Finance says that the country was “in decline” and warned party supporters that if the country continues to be managed by the ULP, the multi-island nation of 110,000 people “will become a failed state”.
He speaks of the NDP’s “Social, Spiritual, and Redemption Charter”, and the policy of ensuring that at least one member of each of the nation 33,000 households is employed.
Eustace further says that the “knowledge-based economy” proposed by the NDP, will help to combat youth unemployment.
Over the past few weeks, the party has offered some insights into what an NDP Cabinet might look like.
Eustace repeatedly says that he would manage the national purse as Minister of Finance.
Utterances by Norrel Hull, the NDP candidate who was defeated thrice in Central Leeward, along with his resume, suggest that he will be Minister of National Security under an NDP administration.
At the NDP’s referendum anniversary celebration rally last week, Senator St. Clair Leacock, who had earlier in the campaign spoken of the party’s “Vision 2020”, discussed the NDP’s proposed Ministry of Private Sector Development.
“Our economy will be built around agriculture, which is available to all of us Vincentians. …the strength of our economy will be built around our interdependence,” Leacock says.
But it is NDP founder and former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell who elaborates on the party’s proposals for agriculture.
Sir James, an agrarian, says that the party has identified 70 farmers and 500 acres of land ready to go into cocoa cultivation as international analysts say that unless there is a new high-yielding variety of the fruit, global demand will outstrip supply in 50 years.
However, at the celebration rally last Thursday, it was teacher Addison “Bash” Thomas who was “the voice of the farmers”.
He says farmers “have been complaining that since 2001 under this wicked administration of Ralph Gonsalves, they have been suffering”.
Thomas accuses the ULP administration of relieving banana farmers of their association and giving it to party “bigwigs”.
In light of Leacock’s, pronouncements, it seems that the NDP and the ULP are at variance on the engine of the economy.
But Dr Godwin Friday, the representative for the Northern Grenadines, says tourism “has shown the most promise” and the former NDP administration invested heavily in its promotion and infrastructural development.
He says that while tourism earnings was EC$329 million (US$121.85 million) in 2009, a seven-fold increase in yacht fees in 2002 is driving sailors south to Grenada.
“The government made money,” he says, adding that citizens, whose businesses serviced the yachts, faced with reduced earnings, have either shut up shop, downsized, or move to Grenada.
According to Friday, the NDP’s plan for tourism includes consulting stakeholders and increase promotion and tourism activities.
“But, most of all, we will ensure that there is security on the water for yachts, security in the hotels and homes, the rental homes of all these people who come and visit us,” Friday says, adding that visitors are concerned about the crime situation.
He says an NDP government will “take this seriously and we say to the stakeholders in this industry: just hold on, we want your ideas, we want to work with you to rebuild this economy…”
It seems that the Minister of Foreign Affairs under and NDP government will be Dr Linton Lewis, who has said the NDP will establish relations with another country only after parliamentary debates.
Lewis says that while an NDP government will not sever ties with countries such as Venezuela, Cuba, or “countries with whom we have extended our arms … we recognise the important of mutual respect among the countries and between the countries and those we have relationships with.”
He further says that an NDP administration will encourage its allies to recognise the importance of human rights and participatory democracy.
The economy and the polls
The politicians might not readily admit it, but voters will go to the polls with the economy on their minds.
And while Gonsalves quotes Eastern Caribbean Currency Union figures to show Vincentians that their economy is more buoyant than others across the region, citizens are feeling the effects of the global financial crisis and might be inclined to punish their government for it.
The ULP administration boasts of having doubled the gross domestic product in the past 10 years. However, there seems to be a disconnection between economic planners in Kingstown and villagers in rural SVG in that regard. The benefits of the economic growth seem to be percolating especially slowly, and many residents of rural SVG, confronted by the harsh realities each day, are not to be convinced.
It was not until recently that Gonsalves’ government repaid EC$10 million (US$3.7 million) of the EC$30 million (US$11.11 million) owed to the private sector. Gonsalves further says that, after the election, public servants will be paid retroactive to Jan. 2010 a two per cent salary increase owed to them.
These developments call to mind the EC$30 million “gift to the nation” handed out at Independence last year as the nation prepared to vote in the Constitution Referendum.
Further, recent developments in Barbados, the only Caribbean country listed as developed on the last Human Development Index, might be insightful for SVG.
Last week, the government in Bridgetown increased taxes, including Value Added Tax (VAT) and bus fares and a cut some tax-free allowances in a bid to raise more than US$100 million (EC$270 million).
Finance Minister Chris Sinckler told citizens that he had no alternative as he tries to rein in a galloping public deficit and public debt.
Vincentian voters are happy about the government’s policy on education, the low-income and no-income houses, the roads, bridges, learning resource centres, national library, and, among other things, the prospect of a direct flight between New York and Argyle that the ULP has given to them.
However, they are also concerned about Gonsalves’ seeming autocratic style of leadership and the oft far and overreaching arm of the state.
Gonsalves himself says that the ULP and the NDP vary starkly on their interpretation of the role of government.
“The opposition NDP … [views] the role of the state in the most minimalist terms and tends to see it ideologically as a burden to the people,” he says.
On the other hand, the ULP Gonsalves says, views “the democratic state as a manifestation of the people’s will”.
Despite this, his ULP team will go to the polls with less appeal to voters in comparison to its last two outings in the national elections.
Vincentians remember the rape allegations against their Prime Minister in 2008, which may have put a dent in his popularity, although he denies the allegations and the Director of Public Prosecutions dismissed the cases for the lack of evidence.
Citizens are also concerned about the country’s foreign policy, which, some say, in the face of actual and potential tangible benefits, opens the nation to the potentially negative impact of increasingly warm relations with states that do not share Vincentians’ regard for democratic principles and human rights.
Swing voters slighted?
However, with just over a week before general elections, swing voters and independents might be aided by a concrete, detailed account of the major parties’ proposals for the country — the manifestos — which they can peruse at their leisure, away from the rant and rave and cuss-outs that characterise campaign rallies.
The Green Party has one but Thomas, in his most explicit characterisation of party leader Ivan O’Neal and his 13 candidate to date, told I Witness-News this week:
“You all in the commentariat need to stop referring to the Green Party in serious political debates. It is a joke, a non-entity that can only cause embarrassment to Vincentian politics. Of the candidates Mr O’Neal declared, at least three did not finish primary school, he could not pronounce the name of one, and one did not know which constituency she was running in. This is a farce.”
Gonsalves says that the ULP manifesto will be released at least ten days before the elections. However, its launching is not one of the events slated for Dec. 3 on the ULP’s website.
The NDP, which displayed its manifesto at an election rally last week, says it will be released “soon”.
The fact that we are less than two weeks to Election Day and the manifestoes have not yet been distributed is an indication of the regard the parties have for their own ideas and the people,” Thomas says.
He further says that while the ULP “is in a better place because it will or can run on its record”, the NDP “does not have to propose anything or present a manifesto” because it knows that the media “feel duty-bound to cover every charge or innuendo it raises about the government”.
But Thomas was also doubtful of the impact of manifestos, saying they “cannot affect the way people vote because there can be no serious dissection or discussion on them before the all important day of decision”.
“There are no real implications except to say that political leaders and political parties follow a tradition to issue them.
“They are souvenirs for the party faithful and provide talking points for the gullible commentariat,” he says.
“For the parties, manifestoes provide another opportunity for them to occupy or dominate the airways rather than a serious presentation of ideas intended to stimulate meaningful discussions or debate,” Thomas adds.
However, barrister-at-law and former journalist Carlos James believes the late distribution of the manifestos is an indication of the type of politics the parties want to continue to force the electorate to accept.
“They are of political and historical significance,” he says of the manifestos, adding that they act as “a blueprint and an indicator” of the type of policies a party want to implement, if elected.
“They also serve as a historical account, where one can follow the progress of a government based on the blueprint they had set out during electioneering. So it serves as a check on their record over the next five years. In essence, it is a contract with the voters,” James says.
Unlike Thomas, James sees manifestos as more than souvenirs, saying that they give voters a fair chance to weigh issues intelligently.
“…but what we are seeing here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines is that voters are being forced to go to the polls to vote for the party that can get the most political diatribe out in the open. I have been on the ground and the type of characters that drive around with loud speakers airing what I consider to be just baseless non-important issues is an indication of that,” James says.
He believes that the delayed release of the manifestos denies the electorate any opportunity to have any meaningful debate on the issues the manifestos propose.
“It is a complete waste of time to publish manifestos this close to the polls. People will want to see in print a detailed account of the plans for the next five years and why a political party should be either elected or re-elected. We need to move to a more mature type of politics,” James says.
“We have not developed our style of politics to accommodate debate on the more important issues that should be in voters’ minds when they turn up at the polls and I do believe one way in which we can get to that level is to have both sides of the political fence challenge each other on the policies which they plan to implement if elected,” he further says.