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Neighbourly Lessons?

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EVERYONE familiar with politics in the Caribbean will know that Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and his Unity Labour Party have a mountain to climb as far as winning a third consecutive term in office is concerned. For a multiplicity of reasons, the ULP, which at one time seemed to have shattered the electoral aspirations of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), now finds itself on the backfoot, trying to retrieve its political fortunes as we approach the long homestretch up to the next general elections.{{more}} It is not that victory is beyond the grasp of the ULP, because the electorate can be very fickle at times, and Dr. Gonsalves is a formidable political opponent who seems to relish a fight. But a fight he certainly has on his hands, especially after the debacle of last November’s referendum on the Constitution.

The first step in that fightback ought to have been a sober and realistic post-mortem on the referendum. I don’t know whether that has been done in-house, but the public pronouncements from the ULP leadership have yet, in my opinion at least, addressed what are the real reasons for that humbling setback. So, on to stage two, the ULP’s Convention last weekend, where the party faithful gathered to chart their path forward. From all appearances, this may not be the last Convention before the election; political wisdom would suggest a final rallying of the troops before the big battle. The choice of invited speakers is certainly very instructive, David Commissiong appealing to youth and black consciousness, while St.Lucian Opposition Leader Kenny Anthony, who himself lost power after two successive terms in office, was a most appropriate choice.

From the reports I have read on his address, Dr. Anthony could not have been more relevant to the moment, drawing on his St. Lucian experience to provide valuable lessons for the ULP. The parallels between the neighbouring countries and sister-parties are striking, providing fertile ground for Dr. Anthony’s seeds. Interestingly, Dr. Gonsalves has been heard to remark publicly, on more than one occasion, that he is “not Kenny”, intimating that he is not about to repeat the mistakes made by the former St. Lucian PM. Now he was ensuring by his invitation to Dr. Anthony that his party as a whole would benefit from a first-hand account.

One important commonality brought out by Dr. Anthony is the similarity of the situations facing the two respective governments in their last year in office. Those who would doubt the achievements of the Anthony administration in St. Lucia after two terms in office would have been in the minority. It was widely considered that both economically, and in the provision of social services, the St. Lucia Labour Party administration has overseen progress in that country. Yet, when it came to the final choice, the voters of that country preferred to resurrect the retired veteran “founder of the nation”, Sir John Compton. This ought not to be forgotten, was Dr. Anthony’s message. He pointed out that of all the countries in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), SVG is “best poised to recover from the global economic meltdown”. Indeed, the former PM told his audience, during the last decade, with the exception of Antigua, the Vincentian economy grew at a much faster pace than the other countries in the region.

But Dr. Anthony has learnt the hard way that such success does not automatically guarantee electoral victory. So he warned the chest-thumping ULP-ites that such achievement, “no matter how magnificent, (a favourite adjective of our PM), or spectacular, will not be enough to win the election.” Who better to transmit this message than one who has lived that experience! Importantly, he made reference to non-economic factors, some of the mere perception, which can influence choices at the polls. Crime, and the government’s failure to arrest its growth, had a scaring effect on the middle classes in St. Lucia, he said. Not much different here, but the Gonsalves administration has a problem with a perceived lack of strong action in curbing allegations of police brutality.

One important point which ought to be of relevance, not just to the Government, but to the Opposition as well, is the impact of the international and regional economic environment. Often, we in these small countries blame our governments for every hardship we may encounter economically. Conversely, governments are only too willing to take the credit for good fortunes, whether of their own making or not. But in the particularly difficult international environment, it is vitally important that both political forces educate their supporters about the true nature of the problems facing us and the degree to which our own difficulties or progress are dependent on forces beyond our control. It is especially important for those on the outside, aspiring to office, if false hopes are not to be raised only for dreams to be shattered, not for lack of will or effort, but because circumstances may be too much even for the best efforts.

It is left to be seen whether the ULP would, as a whole, learn from these lessons. They are an important factor, but not the only one in the electoral equation. Much soul-searching has to be done, honestly and frankly, and tactics and strategies revisited. It is easy to talk of “war” and “licks like peas”, far more difficult to acknowledge shortcomings and mistakes, and humbly try to rectify them.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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