KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent (CMC) — Voters in this Caribbean Community (CARICOM) country go to the polls on Thursday to elect a new government with Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves eyeing an unprecedented fifth consecutive term in power and his main rival, Godwin Friday, hoping to reverse the trend.
Gonsalves, 74, who has had the distinction of contesting all general elections in the country since it attained political independence from Britain in 1979, is hoping that his Unity Labour Party (ULP) will have a more comfortable margin of victory than the slender one-seat it managed in the last two general elections for control of the 15-member Parliament.
“I put my bucket down among the people in love and caring and my runs are on the tins. Those who want to beat them off have to go to the wicket of leadership, but in these difficult and perilous times, this is not a time for a trainee.
“This is not a time for an apprentice. This is the time for a seasoned warrior and a master builder who has a record of service to the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Gonsalves has said of his thrust towards his much-hoped-for “five in a row” victory.
Friday, 61, the Member of Parliament for the Northern Grenadines since 2001, is leading the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) into a general election for the first time, having replaced economist Arnhim Eustace a former prime minister and finance minister, who last served in government when the NDP was booted out of office in a 2001 routing that ended its 17-year stint in office.
“I know that they (ULP) want to get into our head but we have prepared the grounds for winning this election free and fair,” Friday told party supporters
Friday, speaking further at a ceremony where the two main political parties had signed the Code of Conduct, emphasised that it was “important that we understand the gravity of the process of voting.
“Those selected must reflect the will of the people” and “all actions that demean this process do not guarantee that the people are served, and are led by the party and the political leadership of their choice,” he said.
The NDP’s challenge of the electoral defeat in the last general election is still before the courts and Friday has on numerous occasions defended the decision, saying it is important for the population to be fully aware of what had transpired in the December 2015 election.
“That’s why we have been pursuing this so vigorously. Of course, we believe in the strength of our case, the petitioners believe in the strength of the case, the lawyers believe in the strength of the case. But ultimately that will be a matter for the courts to decide and we will present the best evidence that we can, the best arguments…” he said.
Barbados-based regional pollster, Peter Wickham, told the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) that the swing required for the ULP to lose the election would have to be “quite significant” and that the swing required by the ruling party to actually gain a seat is “quite small.
“I think on a balance of probability I am more inclined to think that the Unity Labour Party is in a position to hold on to office and could possibly gain an additional seat or two because two seats are within the swing range,” said Wickham, who has done polling in several regional countries ahead of a general election.
Deputy Supervisor of Elections, Sylvester King said the Special Voters Registration period ended on Oct. 24 and that every person who is 18 years of age or older on or before Oct. 24, was entitled to be registered as a voter, and must ensure that they complete their registration during the special registration period.
The voters list shows that 98,119 people are eligible to vote during the 10-hour period that begins at 7a.m. (local time).
The Electoral Office also indicated that special arrangements are being put in place to ensure that front line workers, such as police officers and health sector employees, can vote early when they visit the polling stations on Election Day.
King said that the front line employees must take along some form of identification so they can be easily identified on Election Day.
Like in several CARICM countries, where elections have been held this year, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had an impact on the type of campaign here, even though it would be difficult to agree with the situation, given that both political parties were staging activities in which their supporters were hardly wearing masks, much less practicing social distancing.
Wickham says it is interesting to analyse the data from countries where general elections have been held during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The fact that in pretty much all of the countries we have had elections, the COVID seems to have been kinder to incumbents and this has been the experience in the other elections we have had like in St. Kitts-Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica.
“So I would be inclined to think that if it does happen in St. Vincent and the Grenadines it would be the same situation there,” Wickham told CMC.
The Guyana-based CARICOM Secretariat said it is sending a six-person election observation mission to monitor the polls. It is headed by Anthonyson King, a member of the Antigua and Barbuda Electoral Commission.
“For CARICOM, election observation serves as a platform to support existing democratic traditions within the Caribbean Community as part of its wider policy of supporting democracy,” the secretariat noted.
Gonsalves, one of the longest serving prime ministers in the 15-member CARICOM region, says Thursday’s poll “is about protecting our Vincentian identity, jobs, land and heritage.
“It’s about the airport and the coming resorts. It’s about continuing the transformation in a way that puts Vincentians first. Let’s lift SVG higher,” he said, noting that since coming to power in 2001, his ULP has undertaken a socio-economic transformation of the island.
“The transformation is now being widened,” he said, making reference to the “education revolution” the “health and wellness revolution” as well as the plans that have been put in place to take advantage of the information, communication and technology (ICT) sector, housing, electricity.
He is adamant that St. Vincent and the Grenadines under a ULP administration would not get involve in the controversial citizenship by investment programme (CBI), through which foreign investors are provided with citizenship in return for making a significant financial investment in the socio economic development of the island.
Finance Camillo Gonsalves, who political observers regard as the heir apparent to his father, is promising that the new ULP administration will create at least 4,650 jobs.
He said that at least 3,000 jobs will be created in the hotel and hospitality sector, with the government recently signing an agreement to allow the Jamaica-based Sandals Resorts International to establish a presence here next year.
“And then we’re building a new port. We’re building a new parliament. We’re building a new courthouse. We build new houses for the people in Rose Place. We’re building roads and bridges all over the country that is going to create an additional 700 plus jobs,” he said, adding that a local call centre, will increase its staff from 200 to 750.
“And then as the economy grows, and the government grows, we will employ another 400 or so people because we have to employ people for the new hospital, we have to employ new police. We have to employ new engineers and architects,” the younger Gonsalves said.
But Friday has said that national development is about people and not about “big buildings and fancy things.
“I don’t believe that development is about big buildings and fancy things. It’s about making people’s lives better,” he told his NDP’s youth rally on Monday, adding “this ULP government, they have had all these big, shiny objects, they have big projects that they say they built and they say that that means that the country develop.
“And then when you ask, ‘How are people feeling today, are lives better off today?’ And they tell you no, because poverty is greater because the economy only grew by 0.4 per cent last year, which means it can’t create jobs, that farmers are finding it harder, that fisherfolk are finding it harder,” Friday said.
“Everybody in this country except those who have a party card, except those who are connected to the ULP (Unity Labour Party) are finding it harder.”
The NDP has released leaked information from the 2018 Country Poverty Assessment, which shows that about 36% of the population are living in poverty.
The seven-page document highlights key elements of the country’s most recent assessment of poverty and according to the document circulated by the political party, poverty among the population has risen from 30.2% in 2008 to 36.1% in 2018.
“It is a reality that the country has become poorer; that more people are in poverty than they were before; more people are unemployed than there were in 2001,” said Friday, adding that the Country Poverty Assessment is an important study as it gives a view of how poverty is affecting people here.
He said poverty is not a partisan issue and that data from such a report was helpful with planning the way forward with strategies to alleviate poverty.
The opposition leader said that the 2018 poverty assessment, data showed that not only did poverty increase in the preceding decade, but also that there was greater inequality in the country.
“It also showed that there was greater inequality in our country,” he said, adding “them who fat, they’re getting more. They are getting more. So the same people who done get, they getting more”.
But Prime Minister Gonsalves has brushed aside the 2018 poverty assessment, saying it was not done properly.
“When the study is properly done, the study will be subject to a peer review because they go and ask some people some questions and people …answer and on the basis of that, you going compile something? You have to interrogate it.
“Is a multidimensional poverty study. You think anybody can fool me with these things?” Gonsalves said, adding “anybody could tell me that on a proper analysis St. Vincent poorer than in 2001?”
Both parties have released their manifestoes ahead of the elections, promising improved socio-economic conditions and promising to bring St. Vincent and the Grenadines into a new future.