The economy and the next election
When Barbadians go to the polls at the next general election to choose a government for the ensuing five years, it is more than likely that economic considerations will weigh heavily in deciding how they will vote. Indeed, a question which arguably will be uppermost on the minds of voters as they head into the polling booth, is which of the two major parties is better able at this time to help them realize the dream of a better life.
Barbadians are not unique in this regard. Every person the world over yearns for a better life, however he or she defines it. In this highly materialistic age, a better life is associated with upward social mobility, personal improvement in measurable terms and material acquisition. Put another way, it is about reaching a point where each individual can say with confidence that he or she is better off than before.
Achieving this position largely comes about as a result of the individual being able to access opportunities arising from social and economic policies set by Government. These opportunities translate into being able to attend university, send one’s children, find a job and earn enough money to afford a home or motor vehicle, to name a few examples.
When the average Barbadian reflects on his or her fortunes during the tenure of the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP), especially during the last three years, and asks the question “Can I really say that I am better off today than when the Dems took office?”, the vast majority, especially if they happen to be middle class, will unhesitatingly say “No!”
Saddled with tax increases in the name of austerity to support an inefficient public sector, having to pay tuition fees to attend the University of the West Indies after the administration ended the longstanding policy of 100 per cent publicly funded university education, and struggling to live on reduced incomes in the face of higher prices, among other things, life has become tough for most Barbadians.
Despite the inclusion of a few “gifts” such as a $40 monthly increase in non-contributory pensions and a promise to appoint temporary public sector employees, last week’s Budget presentation will further add to the hardships Barbadians are experiencing when the new Social Responsibility Levy takes effect on September 1.
This two per cent imposition on all imports into Barbados is to assist in offsetting the costs associated with financing public healthcare. However, retail sector representatives have calculated that the impact will be price increases up to about six per cent. Ironically, when the DLP was voted into office in the January 2008 general election, it was on a promise of lowering the cost of living. It never occurred.
Because of the socially uplifting policies pursued by the much loved and revered late Prime Minister, Right Excellent Errol Barrow, when the DLP served its first stint in government from 1961 to 1976, most Barbadians came to regard the DLP as the party which looked out for the interests of the average Barbadian.
It can be argued that this is no longer the case because the experience of the last three years in particular would have only served to reinforce doubts which would have initially surfaced during the gut-wrenching austerity period of the early 1990s under a previous post-Barrow DLP government.
It is quite evident, based on an analysis of prevailing public opinion, that Barbadians, including the private sector, have lost confidence in the DLP’s ability to manage the economy effectively and deliver on the national aspiration of sustained growth and improved prosperity. This happens to be so not only because the Government’s economic strategy missed key targets in quite a few instances but also because of confusing signals from the administration.
With the next general election constitutionally due in a year and a half, but which some observers anticipate will come next year, this perceived weakness will be the Achilles heel of the DLP. In contrast, Barbadians generally seem to agree that when the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) is in government, things are usually better economically. To support this argument, they point to more business activity which translates to more employment and more money in circulation.
Bread and butter issues, therefore, are highly likely to determine the outcome of the next general election. Considering that each general election is essentially a referendum on the performance of the incumbent, what makes the DLP particularly vulnerable is that unlike their parents under Errol Barrow, few Barbadians today can really say that life for them has become better under Prime Minister Freundel Stuart.
On the basis of this verdict, it seems as if the election die is already cast. Time, however, will surely tell.