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D Choice!

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Elections 2020 in St Vincent and the Grenadines are now down to the wire and in less than a week’s time, voters
will make their of leadership and governance of our country’s affairs for a maximum of five years. Interestingly our elections will take place a mere two days after voters in the USA make their own choice in presidential and congressional elections, also keenly followed here by virtue of the international media.

For almost a quarter of a century now, elections in SVG have been characterized by a titanic straight fight between the two contending parties, the governing Unity Labour Party (ULP) and the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP).

The ULP will be attempting to accomplish the unprecedented feat of a fifth straight victory, touted as “Five in a row”, while the NDP will be desperately trying to inch over the line, having come close on the two previous occasions.

The political exchanges have been fractious and even cantankerous at times and the battles have been waged in the courts as well as the streets raging on for ten long years now. Each side must be hoping for a decisive outcome, of course in its favour, as will most of the electorate so that the never-ending squabbles can give way to an atmosphere of focused national development.

But that is easier said than done and the levels of mobilisation and intensity suggest another closely-fought encounter. The pundits among us are busy with their predictions and selections, but history has taught us always to be prepared for political surprises on Election Day. Critical determining factors will be the turnout at the polls in the unique experience of voting amidst a pandemic, and the youth vote in particular. This year young people who were not yet born when the ULP won its first election in 2001, will be eligible to cast their votes. Which way will the pendulum swing?

In spite of the health protocols occasioned by the threat of COVID-19 and the danger of dengue fever, supporters of both parties have been participating in mass rallies, often ignoring the protocols and the campaigning very much resembles those from the past. One significant feature though has been the use of the social media, though abused in some quarters. Naturally, winning the youth vote has been very much a part of this trend.

Given the economic challenges, not only is the youth vote heavily courted, but the issue of JOBS is very much at the centre of the campaign. Too often though this is addressed more in an emotional way rather than a well thought out strategy for overall economic development. In the process ridiculous proposals are even advanced which have had to be withdrawn or hidden as reality exposes opportunism.

There was a time when political parties distributed manifestos well before election and campaigned around their contents. Today, more and more it seems as though manifestos are more collectors’ items given the lateness of their presentation. While the manifesto promises might not be decisive in the outcome of the elections, the winner of the November 5 poll will stand to be judged on the basis of its implementation of the programmes put forward.

There is a lot at stake in this election. For the leadership of the NDP in particular, a fifth successive defeat will be catastrophic and will certainly bring in chain demands for wholesale changes and the advent of a new generation. It is left to be seen whether its slogans of “Ah fed up with Ralph” (PM Gonsalves) and the age-old call for “Time for a change” will be enough to counter the impressive achievements of the ULP era.

Undoubtedly, when a party has been in power as long as the ULP, and when the leader is very much an “in your face” character, the “fed up” call will have some traction, but will that be enough in the absence of a progressive, realistic and achievable socio-economic programme? Has the NDP done enough to correct its image of negativity and opposition politics? It needs to convince the electorate about the stability of its leadership, its ability to reign-in some eccentric characters in its midst and the soundness of its controversial proposals such as the passport selling hung around its neck by the ULP, as well as on issues such as the proposed shift to the Peoples Republic of China and where it stands on Patel Matthews’ ganja proposals.

In the case of the ULP, while it stands on its proud record of achievements, it has also rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and needlessly caused antagonism, the latest being another row on policy relating to the participation of teachers in elections as candidates. Clearly the leadership of Dr Gonsalves is a major advantage but not without its drawbacks. He has been promising to leave the stage for some time now, but while having identified possible successors, now seasoned in ministerial experience, at each juncture he appears to be reluctant to free up the reins.

But he is a formidable opponent and rabble-rousing politics alone will not be enough to topple him. It must be remembered that Dr Gonsalves emerged from the debacle of the 2009 referendum defeat to snatch victory in the elections of 2010 and held on in 2015. He has a formidable set of accomplishments at local, national, regional and international levels to his credit and more than 40 years of election experience to boot. Next Thursday will tell us whether despite his longevity, the electorate is prepared to hand him a farewell victory.

Let’s all commit ourselves to peaceful elections.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.