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Stay on guard against political tribalism

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Editor: Recently, while I was listening to Mr. Elwardo Lynch’s radio programme on NICE Radio, something happened that really lifted my spirit and brought a warm feeling to my heart. Mr. Arhnim Eustace, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), was guest on Mr. Lynch’s programme, and highlighted a recent experience he had.

Mr. Eustace shared with the nation that after the Prime Minister’s accident, members of the NDP called him to wish that the PM, who is also the leader of the Unity Labor Party (ULP), had died in the accident.{{more}} Mr. Eustace told the nation that he refused to participate in that kind of politics. If my memory serves me correctly, he explained that he told these NDP supporters that this is not the way to build “a kinder and gentler nation”. He publicly, on the radio, rightly condemned such negative sentiments and attitudes expressed to him after the PM’s accident.

There are those that would say to me: “so big deal if Mr. Eustace condemned those attitudes of his supporters”. However, in the context of the intense political rivalry that has reached a level resembling political tribalism, these statements made by Mr. Eustace must never go unnoticed. His attitude toward this type of behavior was special and it was profoundly relevant. We are living in an era in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) where too many people seem to only notice when bad things happen to our political leaders and when they make mistakes so they can pounce on them in order to embarrass them and gain political mileage. But when good deeds are done, we go mute or even try to distort the good deeds to make them look bad, regardless of the damage to our national social capital. Certainly, attitudes against political divisiveness will reduce political hostility significantly and create more space for inter-party dialogue and initiatives around development policies. Again I could hear people saying to me that I am dreaming and this will never happen. Maybe they are sadly right simply because the society seems to have settled for the habit of not recognizing quickly and consistently when positive ways are struggling to be born and grow.

But this habit is not productive nor is it sustainable. A meaningful politics might just pass us by. The political water has become so dirty that many citizens are beginning to avoid using it for fear of contamination. It is becoming harder to achieve good debate that is without meanness, slander, and mischief – all in the name of this or that political party. A Searchlight Newspaper Editorial, 5 November 2005, titled “Picong and Intellectual dishonesty” puts it in good terms when it says: “When one is the target of picong, the thing to do is hit back with picong or keep silent. In the absence of this skill, what we have been noticing is a worrying trend where issues are twisted or taken out of context and presented in a way to achieve maximum response, usually negative, from the populace. These accusations, suggestions, call them what you may, are, by their very nature, not just jabs at the opponent, but have the potential to stir up deep-seated resentments among our people.”

In this period of our history when we are commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it is essential to recall that inter-tribal conflicts in Africa, the Motherland of the majority of Vincentians, helped the European slave traders to fulfill their demands for slaves. Those kings and chiefs who had the responsibility to govern these African societies allowed the European slave traders to manipulate these natural tribal conflicts, hence making it easier for them to divide and rule African societies. I would think that after going through that experience we would today act to ensure that political rivalry does not turn into destabilizing conflicts between the political parties and make them completely tribal.

As the rivalry between political parties increases in SVG, a small island developing state, foreign and domestic negative influences are penetrating deeper into the society. In this environment, it is harder for the society to complete the emancipation process, thus delaying the day when Vincentians will be free from social evils such as poverty, unemployment, and political divisiveness and marginalization.

More efforts are needed to add speed to national public initiatives seeking to encourage discussion and action on important national challenges. There are many development challenges and opportunities demanding more and better national multi-party and multi-sectoral public discussions that could bring the nation closer to the truth of “together now” and a “compassionate, kinder and gentler society”. While working toward those prizes of truth, the nation should also keep its eyes on the need to work consciously to avoid the Searchlight newspaper’s warning in 2005 which is a call for us not to use party politics “to stir up deep-seated resentments among our people.”

Maxwell Haywood