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Ralph, ULP and leadership succession

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The governing Unity Labour Party (ULP) last weekend celebrated, albeit in subdued circumstances due to COVID restrictions, its historic election victory of November 5, 2020.

Not only did it achieve the unprecedented feat of a fifth successive triumph at the polls, but in what was predicted to be a close fight, it actually increased its margin of victory in Parliament by one seat. There are political parties in the Caribbean, SVG including, which have swept the polls, winning all seats, but they in turn have later experienced the bitter taste of defeat. The ULP stands alone in its five-in-a-row accomplishment.

Fast forward to September 2021 and this quotation from Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves in a document entitled, “The NDP, Donald Trump and Assorted Crazies”:

“To be sure, in time there will be fresh elections. In December 2025. Meet the ULP and Ralph in contest again, at that time!”

What are we to gather from this statement? Is it a fair interpretation that Ralph Gonsalves intends to contest the 2025 elections, health and life willing, and possibly to lead his party as well? If so it will be another, possibly unprecedented feat, his 11th successive electoral contest.

It is a scenario which remarkable if attempted, is nevertheless worrying. What does a man with such an outstanding record have with contesting elections as he moves into his eightieth year? Where is the manifestation of succession so frequently mentioned?

Dr Ralph Gonsalves, whether as Prime Minister, Political Leader, political scientist, economist, teacher or writer has a very distinguished resume of which any man can be justly proud. In political terms he has no more mountains to climb, nothing left to prove. Whatever his detractors may say, there is little dispute that he has left an indelible mark on our political, economic and social landscape, his place in our history is well assured.

In addition, he is blessed with a Cabinet of Ministers that many of his predecessors may envy. It is true that we are yet to benefit from the full exercise of their potential but there is no doubt about the quality of the human resources, inside and outside Cabinet, which are available to him. There is more than enough, not only to be satisfied but to be comfortable with a succession.

To his credit Dr. Gonsalves has on several occasions raised the succession issue publicly. In fact one prominent election billboard, still on display in Kingstown, places Dr Gonsalves between two of the more prominent younger rising stars of his party, Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves and Agriculture Minister Saboto Caesar. This is as clear an indication of the thinking of the ULP on the succession issue as one could get.

Yet there seems to be some degree of reluctance on the part of the Prime Minister to “walk the talk”. On several occasions he has spoken about preparation for his departure, yet in practical terms we have not advanced far along the succession road. I must confess that I am not a believer in the talk of unfinished tasks. The tenure of our life is beyond our control and whatever tasks we consider “unfinished” are based on personal goals and ambitions. Indeed no professed Christian can dare to set out for himself or herself what are the God-given tasks in life or who should finish them.

So to return to the succession issue, it is clear that Comrade Ralph has gone more than the proverbial mile. For his own sake and that of his family his rest is overdue. But it needs to be an orderly departure and preparation has to be made in that regard, both inside and outside the party. The Leader cannot allow the emotional and sometimes self-seeking appeals from members or supporters to have him clinging to the wheel interminably.

Political parties in the Caribbean are not very open on such issues and often public comment is designed to support this or that candidate. The ULP has the opportunity to rise above these tendencies. But first the Leader must lead.

Talk of succession will be questioned when there continues to be the overwhelming presence of the Prime Minister on all matters governmental. Even banal matters and announcements often come from the Comrade himself, to the extent that while not disrespecting his valuable contribution, the surfeit of Ralph on nearly all media houses can become counterproductive.

We have had two major crises in the form of COVID and the volcanic eruption. It is my view that the experience, steadying hand of P.M. Gonsalves and the esteem in which he is held internationally, were important factors in being able to navigate those troublesome waters. But if we are serious about succession, that was the time to let the public see more of the capability of ministers. More responsibility should have been placed on the shoulders of the Health and Education Ministers, especially where announcements and information were concerned, and in particular on the “chosen two”. Why are the ULP, Government and Ralph, balking in that regard?

We cannot continue to sell the nation short. Ralph was well-known for his love of “wining down”. He must now make his mark on the winding down process. I will say more on this at a later time.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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