An election dry run for Barbados?
In the lively discussion in Barbados concerning the recent St Lucia general election, especially the brief but controversial presence of Opposition Leader Mia Mottley and the participation of Barbados Labour Party (BLP)-affiliated political consultants in the victorious campaign of the United Workers Party (UWP), a most salient point was somehow overlooked.
It has to do with the next Barbados general election which, constitutionally speaking, is a close one and a half years away. If the same forces which fought on the side of Allen Chastanet’s UWP to defeat Dr Kenny Anthony’s St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) are similarly arrayed against the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP), the Dems’ goose will be well cooked, barring some unlikely miraculous intervention.
Perhaps it was the tacit realization that the St Lucia election, for all practical purposes, represented a sort of dress rehearsal for the looming DLP vs BLP contest that was a source of obvious discomfort for DLP sympathizers. Their anxieties were reflected, for example, in various comments on the airwaves that stemmed more from emotional reaction than the pragmatic application of reason.
That the UWP win was achieved against considerable odds is obviously a big confidence booster for the BLP-aligned strategists. This outcome was hardly ever predicted. A poll by Peter Wickham’s CADRES determined the race was too close to call, though it indicated the UWP was gaining ground on the SLP. An SLP-commissioned poll by Jamaican pollster Don Anderson predicted an SLP re-election with the same 11-6 seat parliamentary majority –– which is exactly what the UWP ended up getting.
So what could have attributed to the SLP’s defeat? In my view, three factors: a misreading by the SLP of the extent to which Dr Anthony’s popularity was slipping, SLP overconfidence which could have caused an underestimation of the UWP challenge and, lastly, alleged vote buying.
There were various reports of people being paid to vote UWP in certain constituencies. If these reports can be substantiated, then it means on the critical field of battle, the SLP was outgunned by money, an insidious practice which seems to be becoming more prevalent in Caribbean elections.
The political conditions which existed in St Lucia, however, were fundamentally different from what obtains in Barbados. Two opinion polls within the last year clearly suggested that the odds of being re-elected are considerably stacked against the Freundel Stuart-led DLP. Without access to comparable political management expertise as the BLP, the Dems will find themselves in a highly disadvantageous position entering the fray to confront the same group of determined, battle-hardened veterans who helped to deliver victory for the UWP.
From all indications, the BLP strategy team is likely to be led by Hartley Henry, a seasoned campaigner who had a pivotal role on the Chastanet team. From past affiliation, he would have intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the DLP, especially in relation to their organizational capacity for fighting elections. Unless the Dems can source comparable expertise which is not available in-house, to the best of my knowledge, their campaign firepower will be no effective match for the BLP’s.
Besides, it is relatively easy to defeat the DLP, as Henry would know. Its biggest problem is the inherent lack of a strong fighting spirit, a tendency to give up easily in the face of adversity, and its general state of disorganization. Seen from this angle, the Dems really did not win the last election. Victory was handed to them by the BLP which failed to effectively defend Owen Arthur, its then leader, when he came under sustained DLP attack during the campaign.
Conditions today on the field of battle, which is the collective mind of Barbadian voters, are fundamentally different than in 2013. There is, for example, considerably more disenchantment with the DLP because of the harshness of its economic policies following the last general election. Actions were taken which Barbadians were led to believe would never happen. It seems, however, that the Dems are looking to use the same 2013 strategy of turning the election into a referendum on Miss Mottley’s suitability to be Prime Minister as they did with Mr Arthur in 2013.
This strategy is most likely to backfire because the average struggling Barbadian is primarily interested in hearing how the next Government will ease the heavy burden of daily living to which the Dems have substantially contributed. Generally speaking, elections are not so much about voting in an Opposition but rather voting out a Government which, for various reasons, has become an irritant to the vast majority of voters. In these circumstances, voters are not really interested in who will be the replacement –– they will deal with that afterwards. Their primary motivation is to vote out the Government which they consider to be the source of their problems.
This is the dilemma facing the DLP going into the next election, never mind that the economy is finally showing encouraging signs of recovery after being in the doldrums for the past seven years. The fact of the matter is that between now and the announcement of the election date, the DLP is highly unlikely to regain the significant ground which it lost since 2013 in terms of public confidence and credibility over its management of a painful economic crisis.
After serving three terms as prime minister, Dr Anthony is preparing for life beyond electoral politics. He will always have his detractors –– that is the nature of politics –– but history, I believe, will be kind to him because he leaves a legacy which will be greatly appreciated by future generations. He will be regarded as the great modernizer who, building on the foundation left by Sir John Compton, took St Lucia to the next critical stage of development, borrowing in some instances from the Barbados model.
I was honoured, from Dr Anthony’s election for the first time in the 1997 SLP landslide 16-1 seat victory, to have participated at various times in this eventful journey. What particularly excited me, as a Barbadian, was the SLP’s achievement of universal secondary education during its second term from 2001 to 2006.
Barbados, with Sir James Tudor as Minister of Education, achieved this feat in 1962. It was a significant achievement for St Lucia that meant an end to the shift system where some students could only attend school for half-day to permit others to have the other half due to a shortage of space.
Dr Anthony also modernized the health sector, laying the groundwork for the construction of new general and psychiatric hospitals. He upgraded the national road network by constructing, among other things, the modern Soufriere to Vieux Fort Highway. He was also instrumental in introducing financial services as a new sector and firmly establishing tourism as the bread and butter industry following the demise of bananas under pressure from global trade liberalization.
Electoral politics exposes office holders to a range of occupational risks. There is one in particular which I always emphasize to politicians who are humble enough to listen. It is that in a democratic system where one’s tenure in office depends entirely on the whims and fancies of fickle voters, today’s hero can easily become tomorrow’s villain, never mind the good he or she may have done.
Dr Anthony was always fully conscious of this harsh reality. Which explains why, despite the obvious disappointment, he has accepted defeat with such dignity and grace. The biggest challenge for the new UWP administration is satisfying the high public expectations which were undoubtedly fuelled by its promises. Failure to deliver could very well see the Chastanet administration becoming St Lucia’s third consecutive one-term government.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and long-standing journalist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)