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The tactics of Opposition


Last weekend the New Democratic Party (NDP) held its Annual Convention at Democratic House, the Party’s Headquarters on Murray Road, Kingstown. The Convention took place in the context of a NDP call for Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves to vacate his office temporarily until legal issues concerning allegations of sexual misconduct by him are resolved. This has led to the NDP abandoning its responsibilities as Parliamentary Opposition by boycotting the last three sittings of Parliament.{{more}}

While these allegations against P.M. Gonsalves are, certainly in the view of the NDP, most serious, it is important that the party does not lose its focus as to its paramount task. That task is to provide the nation with, not just opposition to and criticism of government’s policies, but also a clear vision of the alternatives before us. In so doing, it must use every available means to carry and spread its message. In that light, one would have expected the Convention to re-examine the Parliamentary boycott to evaluate its effectiveness and whether it continues to serve the best interests of the Party and the people of this country.

Political parties all over the world where the Westminster system has taken root employ the tactics of a walk-out from Parliament or a complete boycott of Parliamentary proceedings to dramatize a point or to express disgust of actions either on the part of Government or sometimes the Speaker of the House. At times, political parties have even boycotted general elections in protest against the manner in which they were being conducted. Not many have succeeded in being able to transform such protest actions into successful strategies to lead into office.

The governing ULP and its predecessor, the SVG Labour Party, were themselves no strangers to such tactics. One can agree or disagree as to their effectiveness, but it is the right of every party to make its own judgement on the situation. In the case of the NDP, though, there is the risk of a protest tactic becoming almost a strategy for action since the boycotts for one reason or another are coming close to becoming the norm. With limited seats in Parliament and the golden opportunity of live Parliamentary broadcasts (something prohibited under NDP governance, save for the Budget debates), the NDP must weigh up whether talking to the faithful at Democrat House is more productive than using Parliament and the airwaves for an exposé of government policies and the promotion of an alternative vision.

This is crucial since, in a two-party Parliamentary system, the opposition is part of the mechanisms (weak, albeit) of checks and balances on the Government. Parliament is not the only means of doing so but certainly a most effective way of doing so, given the media coverage. A boycott of Parliament suggests an intensification of extra-Parliamentary methods. Sadly, there is little evidence of this. Even on the call for P.M. Gonsalves to step down, the NDP has been sadly lacking in mobilizing people to put pressure on the P.M. to do so. It has virtually surrendered an opportunity for mass protests inside and outside Parliament.

It may well be that, given what it sees as its success in popularising the Eduardo Lynch programme on NICE radio, the party believes that this may be its gateway to electoral victory. Yes, the programme is widely heard, but there is the danger of the NDP not being seen as an alternative but as a caustic critic of the government, with more negative than positive connotations. For the good of our country, we can only hope that the Party would rise above that, just as we would hope that the ULP, having embarked on its own radio station, does not see this as a substitute for people-centred political work.

Our democracy is still young and has many flows. Yet even within its limitations it is of vital importance that the government not be given any blank cheque to do as it please. Pressure inside Parliament, from without in terms of mobilization strategies and the involvement of civil society will all contribute to keeping those in power on their Ps and Qs.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.