By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Oct. 30, 2020)
“Young man, as you peer down the pathway of life toward an unavoidable bald head bordered with grey hairs, it would be well to bear in mind that the cemeteries are full of men this world could not get along without, and note the fact that things move along after each funeral procession at about the same gait they went before. It makes no difference how important you may be, don’t get the idea under your hat that this world can’t get along without you.” — Elbert Hubbard.
Next Thursday’s elections pit Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, the four-time Prime Minister of SVG, the self-proclaimed heavyweight champion of Vincentian politics, against Dr. Godwin Friday, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP).
On paper, there seems to be no competition. Dr. Gonsalves, apart from his successes in politics, lectured at the University of the West Indies and then left to establish a stellar and profitable law practice. He is a published academic. Dr. Friday built a life and career in law and academia before returning to SVG to take over the constituency as a replacement for James Mitchell, the retiring leader and founder of the party.
Dr. Gonsalves began his walk in the hall of power in 2001 after leading his Unity Labour Party (ULP) to a resounding 12 to 3 trouncing of the DP. He retained power in 2005, 2010 and 2015, although in the last two cycles he narrowly held on with 8 to 7 victories.
Gonsalves is a daring, big picture politician. This explains his grand achievements best exemplified by the Rabacca Bridge, the construction of the Argyle International Airport and SVG successful efforts to obtain a seat on the United Nations Security. On top of these is his strategic commitment to education, which unlocked the ivory towers of university study to hundreds of Vincentian youth.
For 15 of his 19 years in Parliament, Dr. Friday worked in the shadows of Arnhim Eustace. Following his emergence as leader in 2017, he shouldered the hefty responsibility of mending the breach in the party, which at times, witnessed the almost open rebellion of St. Clair Leacock, who lost his bid to be party leader.
In many respects, Dr. Friday is the anti-Ralph. Whereas Dr. Gonsalves is professorial and folksy, vitriolic and combative, Dr. Friday presents in even tones, as if intended that citizens with the lowest cultural level will understand. Gonsalves angrily draws a line in the sand while Friday quietly works to learn the lay of the land.
His predecessor was dubbed “Mr. Clean” by opposition forces. They have embraced Friday and projected him as the right man for the job. Sir James touts Dr. Friday’s likeability. Gonsalves, who countered with the mantra that “difficult times demand an experienced, steady hand”, must know, as is true for every other citizen, cemeteries are filled with men who thought they were indispensable.
Dr. Gonsalves remains ideological and philosophical in rhetoric if not disposition, while Dr. Friday seems unhitched to political theory except for a commitment to the free enterprise system. Evidently, he appears convinced that once the private sector is allowed to practise unencumbered, people will prosper, and the nation will thrive.
Will Gonsalves prowess and experience carry him to a fifth term? Much will depend on the independent, critical thinking sliver of voters, as well as which party ploughs deepest into the communities to get out the vote.
The nation is literally split down the middle. The opposition garnered more than 48% of the votes in 2015. Both parties have solid, active bases so they may be fooled by the huge crowds that have flocked their meetings. An X factor: while supporters of the governing ULP feel free to show their true colours, potential voters for the opposition may be more discrete, intent on speaking only at the polling booth.
A successful fifth term is akin to scaling a political Mt Everest. Few have gotten there and not many may even attempt the feat. Gonsalves is sufficiently audacious, but the odds are daunting. The ULP has taken the strategic decision to run away from its 4th term. Nothing of significance happened. Technically, the international airport opened in 2017, but that mantra fitted the 2015 campaign, and even with the airport the ULP barely held on to power.
The geothermal plant, ULP signature project, which was oversold as a cure to our energy needs, failed spectacularly. Unemployment remains a massive problem. Hopelessness and helplessness land knockout punches to hope and optimism. A malaise has gripped large sections of the population, social prostitution is rampant, and more people have turned to the lottery as a means of survival, thus compounding their miseries.
The society is largely unglued. Too many people don’t know whether they are going or coming. Too many rely on remittances from abroad or simple begging. Poverty remains as high as when the ULP took office 19 years ago.
That’s the canvas on which both leaders paint our future. Politics is about narrative and counter-narrative. He who tells the most compelling story will prove most effective. Will Friday’s clarion call of jobs, jobs, jobs win over most voters to turn the table on Gonsalves? Will voters settle for Gonsalves’ stretch back into earlier years to mine vote-winning nuggets like education, low-income homes and the airport?
The ULP lifted the expectation of many people, especially the youths. Such unfulfilled expectations may prove its undoing. The sad experience of so many youths exemplifies the deep pockets of dissatisfaction so pervasive across the country.
Could Friday do what Eustace failed to do? Apart from our daunting economic and social conditions made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and the dengue fever outbreak, Friday has a trump card. Because postcolonial SVG is not post-colonial, his lighter hue offers him a “leg up”, which Eustace’s darker complexion never provided. Will it be enough?
Gonsalves has confided that these elections are very tight and could go either way. A large swath of the dissatisfied voters is up for grabs. We will soon know if they will make a sharp turn to the opposition or crown Gonsalves as “world boss”.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].