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A new political challenge, for NDP and SVG

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What a situation for our country to find itself so enveloped! A prolonged spate of murders, the continued anxiety over the date of the operationalizing of the international airport at Argyle, and, to compound it all, the resignation of the long-time Leader of the Opposition, Hon Arnhim Eustace. Quite a package to handle, on top of the tight economic situation, the yawning political divide and general disillusionment!

In all of this, I found it most depressing that a major political development, such as the resignation of the Opposition Leader, could find itself having to take second place in much of the media to the gory reports of murder.{{more}} It is not only the acts of murder which tell us about our society, but our treatment of them and our failure or inability to place them in their relevant context.

First though, the positives. I add my congratulations to Dr Godwin Friday on his elevation to the post of Opposition Leader in Parliament, vacated by Mr Eustace. He must now, however, face election as leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) when it holds its convention on Sunday. His challenge will come from fellow vice-president, Major St Clair Leacock, a candidate with early progressive credentials, who must be nursing the disappointment of not getting the support of a majority of the elected parliamentarians on his side, to give him the Opposition Leader post.

Sunday’s convention will therefore have added interest, beyond the usual blanket condemnation of the governing Unity Labour Party (ULP) and the perennial holding out of hope that fresh elections are “coming soon”. It ought to give the party time to reflect on its successes and failures, its need for rejuvenation and to plan the way forward. It would be interesting to see whether the rank-and-file party members go along with the choice of their parliamentary representatives in endorsing Dr Friday, a likeable person, but one who has not been able to garner the national political influence required of one in such a position.

Alternatively, the NDP members, empowered by Mr Eustace’s legacy of ensuring that they, not just the party leadership, can upset the applecart and vote for Major Leacock. Democratic as that might be, it is fraught with the danger of having “two man rat in one hole”, as the local saying goes. The politics of the Caribbean is not kind to dual or multiple leadership, as the Labour Party found out post-Milton Cato, with Vincent Beache leading in Parliament and, the late Hudson Tannis being head of the party. The experience of the United People’s Movement (UPM) here and the tragedy of Grenada also warn against different power centres in an underdeveloped and immature democracy.

Mr Eustace has not had it easy since his selection to succeed Sir James Mitchell as leader of the NDP. He came into the “hot seat” when the political cauldron was literally boiling. One can now, in hindsight, give opinions as to whether he should have taken up the mantle during the turmoil of 2000. He was placed between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”. Sir James had lost majority support and was going to find it difficult to hold on to power; the NDP needed a new face.

To his credit, whatever the motive, Mr Eustace took up the challenge. Predictably, he lost the 2001 elections, forced by the upheavals of 2000, but then went on to lose successive ones in 2005, 2010 and 2015, the last two seemingly snatching “defeat from the jaws of victory”. For this he has been much maligned, not only by his political foes, but even by colleagues of his, the blame for defeat being laid squarely at his feet. Sir James himself, after his falling-out with the Eustace leadership, helped to perpetuate this perception, alleging that he had made “Eustace a Prime Minister, but he (Eustace) had made himself Opposition Leader”.

It was quite unfair to say so, both on the grounds that, had Mitchell contested, he would have been most unlikely to win the 2001 polls, and also due to the fact that under Eustace’s leadership, the NDP emerged from its 2001 nadir to come within a whisker of power twice in the last six years, and handed the ULP a humiliating defeat in the constitutional referendum of 2009.

Arnhim Eustace was no political “knight in shining armour”, and from the time of his short-lived accession to the prime ministerial post, had to contend with a rampaging Ralph Gonsalves in his ascendancy. The rivalry between them has shaped much of our politics over the past decade and a half, and Eustace, lacking Gonsalves’ personality, political acumen and experience, has not had it easy, coming out second in many of their exchanges. That, and the expectations of a public accustomed to flamboyant leaders, had its effect on how he coped with the new situation. History will be the judge as to whether he made a success of it.

Part 2 -next week

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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