Election debates for SVG?
Our election campaign season here in SVG coincides with Presidential and Congressional elections in the United States. Such is the huge influence of the international media, largely US-dominated, that whether willingly or not, we are kept up to date with the daily developments in the campaigns in that country. As a result it provokes discussion and comparisons about the respective processes and conduct of affairs in our respective countries.
One aspect of the US campaign very much under the spotlight now is the leadership debates at presidential and vice-presidential levels. It is a practice not well developed in the Caribbean though in recent times there have been some of these initiated principally by church and civil society organisations. Before the year 2001 in St Vincent and the Grenadines, any debate among the contenders for national leadership was confined to Parliament and, for live broadcast only during the Budget debate annually.
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the conduct of campaigning in that the health regulations have imposed restrictions on traditional campaigning – no mass rallies, musical attractions, village meetings etc. This has cramped the styles of parties and politicians developed over the last two decades or so depending largely on these emotional interactions. It has as well had a positive impact in that the virtual meetings do not leave room for rabble-rousing and political slander which have crept into our politics.
The emphasis on virtual meetings and presentations also raises an interesting prospect, for it opens the door not just to formal presentations but to the possibility of debates between the contenders. Thus it would certainly be desirable to have television/social media debates between the Prime Minister and his challenger for national leadership, the Leader of the Opposition.
It must not however stop there at the level of maximum leadership. For almost four decades now, national leadership has been hogged entirely by two persons, Prime Minister Gonsalves and former PM Sir James Mitchell. Debates can be used to let candidates at the constituency level go head-to-head so that prospective voters can judge them, not only in their presentation of party policies but also how they respond under pressure, how they defend their ideas and counter alternative proposals.
There must be value in such an approach particularly as it is more and more recognized that we need to move beyond the ageing generation of political leaders to a new generation. Our population is a young one but our leaders, brought up in a new era, less and less represent the new generation. We need to give the younger ones an opportunity for national exposure, to demonstrate that they are not just creatures of the old political party set-up but persons with independent minds and ideas for the future.
The problem towards such a wide-encompassing approach is who will bell the cat? In other words which organisation is capable or willing to take on the responsibility of organizing such debates? There is also the challenge arising from the uncertainty of the time for organizing these, recognizing that the timing of the election date depends entirely on the Prime Minister himself. Whether politicians and their leaders are prepared to so engage can also be a stumbling block but there is certainly no harm in trying.