By Kenton X. Chance
President of the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), Arnhim Eustace, told the party’s central executive Tuesday night that he is stepping down as Leader of the Opposition and will not seek re-election as party leader at the next convention, expected to be held before year-end.
Eustace, a 72-year-old economist, told the party’s leadership that he made the decision after discussion with other members of the party about the way forward and said he was not forced to step down, sources familiar with the discussion told iWitness News.
NDP chairman, Linton Lewis, however, declined to comment when iWitness News contacted him Tuesday night, saying that he would be in a better position “to talk about that tomorrow afternoon”.
He, however, confirmed that the NDP’s central executive met Tuesday night, but did not say if any major decisions were taken.
Lewis told iWitness News that the meeting discussed the party’s convention, but he gave no further details.
Sources familiar with Tuesday’s discussions said that Eustace’s parliamentary colleagues could select a Leader of the Opposition before the end of the week.
However, based on the NDP’s constitution, the party can only select a president at its convention and the new leader will be selected then.
Eustace, who has been representing East Kingstown since 1998, will continue as the area’s parliamentary representative, sources familiar with the discussions told iWitness News on condition of anonymity.
The announcement by Eustace Tuesday night at the NDP headquarters in Kingstown came after weeks of discussions following the broaching of the subject of leadership transition in the NDP by Nigel “Nature” Stephenson, Roland “Patel” Matthews and Terrance Ollivierre, Members of Parliament for South Leeward, North Leeward, and Southern Grenadines, sources familiar with the development have told iWitness News.
The decision by Eustace represents a revision of his original position, expressed to iWitness News earlier this year, that the convention would decide his fate.
With the results of the December 2015 general election, which the NDP lost to the Unity Labour Party (ULP) by a single seat, a repeat of the 2010 results, the pressure on Eustace to quit has been mounting, with even some of his most ardent supporters forced to admit, privately, that it is time for the NDP to elect a new leader.
The NDP has refused to accept the results of the elections, in which officials say the ULP secured a fourth consecutive term in office by winning eight of the 15 parliamentary seats, while the remaining seven went to the NDP.
Regional and international observers say the results represent the will of the people, but Eustace and the NDP have maintained that the vote was stolen and have taken their case to court.
Observers say that with the decision to step down, Eustace, who has been leading the NDP since October 2000, may have salvaged his legacy in politics, although he has failed to lead the NDP to victory.
In October 2000, five months before a general election, Eustace came to the helm of a shambolic NDP, which was staring down the barrel of defeat.
The party, which had been in office for the 17 years ending March 2001, under the leadership of Sir James Mitchell, was only able to retain three of the eight seats it held in Parliament as the ULP romped home to victory, amassing 32,925 votes to the NDP’s 23,844.
Almost a decade later, in December 2010, under Eustace’s leadership, the NDP was able to close the gap between itself and the ULP, with just 1,531 separating both parties, and the ULP’s margin of victory reduced from nine seats to one.
But by 2015, the tide was again turning against the NDP which amassed 31,027 votes to the ULP’s 34,246, a difference of 3,219 votes.
While all of the NDP’s seven parliamentarians retained their seat in the 2015 elections, they did so with smaller margins of victory, except for MP for Central Kingstown, St. Clair Leacock, which many persons had seen as Eustace’s likely successor.
But sources in the know tell iWitness News that Leacock might have “out-manoeuvred himself” when he told iWitness News in September that he would not challenge Eustace for the NDP leadership and would dissuade any of his colleagues planning to do so.
Leacock’s argument was that any open challenge to Eustace for leadership of the NDP could lead to a fracture within the party, which could see the NDP losing East Kingstown if constituents feel that Eustace was treated unfairly.
But sources say that the conversation started by Stephenson, Matthews, and Ollivierre, revealed that Eustace might have been reconsidering his earlier position and decided to reflect — and then told the party that he will step aside.
Eustace is also leaving the helm of the NDP after galvanising the population behind his party’s position to reject proposed changes to the Constitution put to the electorate in a 2009 referendum.
Political observers say that the vote was, in fact, a referendum on the ULP administration, which would have been voted out of office 13 seats to 2, if the referendum were general elections.
But one year later, the ULP went on to retain governance by a single seat, forcing the NDP to take another self-critical look inwards.
One source told iWitness News that MP for the Northern Grenadines, Godwin Friday, a lawyer, is likely to become Leader of the opposition, a post which, according to the Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is granted to the persons who commands majority support among opposition lawmakers.
The source speculated to iWitness that Friday is likely to garner at least four of the seven votes and thereby become Leader of the Opposition.
“The person the parliamentarians choose as Leader of the Opposition is very likely to become president of the NDP,” one source told iWitness News.