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The end of the Eustace era: Where goeth the NDP?

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In October 2000, Sir James Mitchell, the NDP’s founder and a four-time Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), vacated political life and handed over the leadership of his party and the Prime Ministership of the country to his hand-picked successor, Mr Arnhim Eustace. Now 16 years later, Mr Eustace has also vacated the political offices of the President of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and its parliamentary leader. At the moment, Mr Eustace has chosen to remain the parliamentary representative of the East Kingstown constituency. But there can be no doubt: the era of the Eustace led NDP has come to an end.{{more}}

This is not the end Eustace would have envisaged for himself. Eustace entered political life with a sterling reputation as an expert in economics. But over the course of the past 15 years, he led the NDP to four consecutive general election defeats, as Vincentians repeatedly rejected the NDP’s economic and political platform. We cannot, of course, know whether a different political leader would have brought about a different result. But political parties exist to win political office and this the Eustace led NDP did not do.

The failure of the Eustace led NDP to win political office may be the defining characteristic of the Eustace era. But it cannot be divorced from what may indeed be the more enduring and most significant development of the last 20 years of Vincentian political life: the transformation of Vincentian politics into a state of political stridency that divided even families, friends, and neighbours into hostile factions that became deeply intolerant of each other.

Two events explain this, both of which predated Eustace’s ascension to the NDP presidency, but each of which would deeply impact his time in office. The first of these is the Road Block Revolution of 2000. Popular protests triggered the early election of 2001 and the NDP lost power. However, the NDP and its supporters have remained deeply offended with the manner of their removal from office. Hence, in every election since, the Eustace led NDP has challenged the legality of the results, leading to a state of extended discord even after the elections are over.

This intense political discord has been aided and abetted with the rise of the political talk radio in SVG. Again, this development predates Eustace’s presidency. But in a political environment bruised by the NDP’s unhappiness at the Road Block Revolution, both parties deployed powerful radio political personalities, whose slash and burn politics went both above and below the belt, and sometimes outside of the law. Indeed, some radio stations would pay steep legal prices for some of these political attacks.

Eustace and the NDP would also pay a political price for the tremendous passions unleashed in this new political environment. The successive electoral losses created new fractures within the NDP. None of these fractures loomed larger than the alienation of James Mitchell from the party he founded. As Eustace piled up losses at the ballot box, Eustace loyalists absolved Eustace of any responsibility for the NDP’s disastrous electoral performances. Rather, they explained these losses as either the residue of Vincentian unhappiness with the last years of Mitchell rule, outright electoral fraud committed by the Ralph Gonsalves Unity Labour Party (ULP) against the NDP, self hate among Black Vincentians in not wanting a prime minister who looks like them, or for that matter, all three. They do not necessarily see these explanations as mutually exclusive.

Mitchell obviously disagreed with this and spoke openly about his dismay with Eustace’s leadership of the party and demonstrated his growing affection for Gonsalves and key members of the ULP. Moreover, a significant group of former NDP supporters, who could be considered Mitchell loyalists, agreed with Mitchell. They would come to see the NDP losses as a reflection of the poor leadership of Eustace himself – that Mitchell gave Eustace a Prime Ministership and Eustace gave it away. Indeed some of the most visible NDP supporters even switched their allegiances and thereby gave public affirmation to the ULP’s major argument against Eustace: that he was singularly unqualified to serve as Prime Minister of SVG.

What then are the challenges the NDP faces in the post-Eustace era? One suspects that rapprochement with the Sir James Mitchell wing of the party is an urgent task. But it would have to do so, however, without opening up new splinters in its ranks. The party has elevated Dr Godwin Friday to the position of Opposition Leader in Parliament, even as Major St Clair Leacock has expressed his willingness to lead the NDP. The NDP definitely cannot win political office in SVG without winning on the mainland. Leacock is undoubtedly its strongest mainland politician. In this post-­Eustace era, keeping Leacock and his supporters on board carries special urgency. But above all, the new NDP leadership must finish the task Eustace could not complete. Eustace resurrected a party that was deeply unpopular at the end of Mitchell’s reign and is now within a few percentage points of becoming a majority party. Making the NDP a majority party is the greatest challenge facing the NDP in the post-Eustace era.

Dr Friday will discover, as Mr Eustace has discovered before him, Dr Ralph Gonsalves and the ULP will not make it easy.

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