Needed reforms in Caribbean politics

A few weeks ago, I read with interest two reports in different newspapers which produced two different responses from me — a chuckle and a shake my head.  They may not have been appropriate outward manifestations given the gravity of the situations, but they were symptomatic of my disbelief on the one hand, and my utter consternation on the other.

In the first article, a prospective independent candidate had called it quits even before the election date had been called.  In voicing his frustrations, the gentleman was at pains to express his disappointment with Barbadians who refuse to use their own agency to demand change. But what was even more interesting was the demand for alcohol by adults for their participation in something that was meant to benefit them.

That was not so surprising given the prevailing political culture of hand-outs in this country, but what was even more alarming was the request, actually demand for the chicken for the children or by the children.  What are we teaching our young people?  And if this is not evidence of the entrenchment of vote buying, I do not know what is.  But who is to blame for this sad state of affairs?

I blame both politicians for the use of patron clientelism as their major strategy for mobilising support instead of policies and programmes (which often can have clientelist overtones but at least these are designed to benefit entire groups of individuals), and citizens, who perform the role of clients, and who are happy to shed their important political right for a lousy $10.00.

The other issue which emerged from the story was the financial burden which everyone who steps into the political arena must carry. Whilst candidates benefitting from a party platform may be able to harness funds from the party, it is not so clear-cut nor easy for independent candidates who must bear such burden alone.

It is this and the clear unfairness of the system which will make it difficult for independent candidates to have a snow ball chance in hell of winning an election in Barbados and the rest of the independent English-Speaking Caribbean. I am not proposing that we need more independent candidates running for political office.  The truth is, I do not believe that they make much of a difference in our political system.

Moreover, like fringe political parties, they simply muddy the elections. Even while criticising political parties, I am a firm believer in these organisations as the one means by which we can organise goals, aspirations and dreams into meaningful programmes, policy and laws.  No other institution is capable of doing so in this modern era.  So whilst I am disappointed with the behaviour of parties, I will continue to support them, and some of the individuals who enter elective politics for noble ends.     

The second story carried by the newspaper concerned the role of arguably one of the most powerful men in Barbados in the decade of the 1990s up to 2008. I refer to former Prime Minister Owen Arthur and the roles that some persons have ascribed to him.  Whatever our views on the former Prime Minister, he will go down in the annals of Barbados and Caribbean political history as having emerged from the working class and for steering Barbados during a difficult period for which the international community has given him much credit.

Moreover, the former PM was unafraid to meet with the press and make public pronouncements at frequent intervals. The former Prime Minister has established his credentials and he is now aging. The two consecutive defeats of his party under his leadership in 2008 and 2013 should have and did come with leadership change. But I am not going to criticise the former Prime Minister. What I however intend to engage in, is a very short discussion on the narrative that a single individual can in perpetuity or for an extended period of time lead a critical institution like a political party. That is a political and personal fallacy!

While the article clearly shows the self-interested nature of the individual who expressed the view that Owen Arthur as a member of the BLP and the chances of a BLP success were indivisible, it also represented an unstated narrative about women and their leadership ability, not to speak of what appears to be a personal and political vendetta against the opposition political leader. I believe that I have said enough over the last few weeks about gender and so I also will not traverse that path today.

One of the unfortunates about Caribbean politics is that we have experienced the phenomena of the “sit tight” political leader similar to what we have seen on the African continent.  In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza in April 2015 declared that he would be seeking a third term, contrary to the term limits under the constitution. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila who had ruled the country for 16 years, in 2016 moved keep himself in power indefinitely.

In Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiango Nguema has been in power for 39 years and we have seen what has occurred in Zimbabwe. Where are those countries on Transparency International’s corruption index? How do they perform on the human development index and so forth? It is safe to say that they are not doing well.

I do not wish to revisit the merit of term or time limits in this column but the Americans have avoided this occurrence and Nigeria for instance has taken a decision that zoning and rotation of political office was an appropriate arrangement to manage the politics of multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities. The idea of zoning and rotating top executive positions whether according to region, ethnicity or religion appears to have been widely embraced by several Nigerians as it was felt it would guarantee to all groups that they will reach the pinnacle of power at some point.

While these issues do not confront political parties in the region, in the interest of good governance, many have felt, and increasingly so, that leadership contests and adequate strategies to ensure succession planning, are crucial.  These are major developmental issues of the post-independence political parties in the region and unless appropriate and immediate reform takes place, will result in parties constantly having to do battle with leaders who have outlived their usefulness and lack national credibility.

So in the Bahamas, for instance, we had a brave member of the Progressive Liberal Party who decided to throw his hat into the ring and challenge the incumbent leader and sitting Prime Minister for leadership of the party. Not only was he castigated by many party supporters and party loyalists but he was personally attacked and vilified. But that is democracy at work and yet we fail to appreciate that no one is entitled to leadership positions and that everything ought to be contested. Interesting, the PLP was completely decimated in the 2017 general elections having lost 25 of the 29 seats which the party held in the previous parliament. In that election, the 75 year old Prime Minister Perry Christie who had represented his constituency from 1977 also lost his seat, removing him from an elected position after 40 years in parliament.

In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, not only do we have a Prime Minister who has been at the helm for four consecutive terms but we also had a Leader of the Opposition who was defeated three consecutive times by the sitting Prime Minister and still desperately clung to leadership. We really cannot afford the luxury of continuing with the idea that one man can solve the problems of a country. All hands of different abilities and temperament are important.

Secondly, discarded politicians (clearly not Owen Arthur), cannot continue to demand apologies from parties for the rejection meted out to them by the people. Thirdly, political parties must find an alternative way of handling internal schisms and disaffection. Fourthly, we must immediately institute mechanisms of successive planning.

I am not expecting a Damascene conversion but we must seriously reflect upon our actions in the interest of better governance.

Source: (Cynthia Barrow-Giles is senior lecturer in political science at the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies)

One Response to Needed reforms in Caribbean politics

  1. JOHN GODDARD January 11, 2018 at 6:04 pm

    I do not know if term limits will help. We must trust the electorate to settle question of who will govern. As for vote buying, I do not believe that it has much influence in Barbados. The ballot is secret and Bajans have been known to take what politicians offer and then vote otherwise. My experience is that the Barbadian electorate is not as gullible and stupid as some think they are.


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