By Peter W. Wickham | Sun, June 24, 2012 - 12:00 AM
One of the recent trends evident in the politics of this region is the relative “weakness” of elected governments, especially when they are compared to the governments of past decades.
The term “weak” is used in reference to the level of popular support retained by elected governments and the extent to which they are vulnerable to the vagaries of minor shifts in the mood of Caribbean populations. These are not insignificant issues and have implications for Caribbean governance; both will be explored in later articles.
On this occasion the case of the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) will be explored since it is one of the unique Caribbean governments that is actually strong both in terms of popularity as well as seat share, and has grown its popularity in government on not only one, but two occasions.
The appended chart presents the growth in popular support of Dominica’s three main political parties since 1995. However, a comparative note immediately demonstrates the significance of their current electoral fortune. The DLP’s 62 per cent share of the popular vote in Dominica is in stark contrast to the Democratic Labour Party’s 53 per cent in Barbados, the St Lucia Labour Party’s 51 per cent in St Lucia and the People’s National Party’s 53 per cent in Jamaica.
As such, the Dominica Labour Party government would fall to a swing of 12 per cent, which is entirely possible but highly unlikely, while the other three would do well to tread cautiously since a swing of less than four per cent would dislodge them. This type of movement between elections is quite normal in the Caribbean.
It is also important to note that this 62 per cent Caribbean high point brought the DLP from the 52 per cent which it gained in the 2005 election, demonstrating an impressive ten per cent swing towards it.
This type of swing is not unheard of in the Caribbean, but it is almost never experienced with a second- and certainly not a third-term government like the DLP.
In the Caribbean, political parties increase their popular support but governments almost never do. This means that political parties come into government from the opposition benches with an enhanced level of popular support and it is generally downhill from there.
As such, the DLP came into office in 2000 with 43 per cent of the popular vote, which was up from 30 per cent (1995). That win represented a 13 per cent swing which the DLP achieved under the leadership of Prime Minister Rosie Douglas.
It is from this point onward that the Dominica model distinguishes itself since one would have expected this DLP government to become “less popular” by the 2005 election. Instead, the DLP-Dominica Freedom Party coalition increased its support in 2005 to 52 per cent with another impressive swing of nine per cent.
The extent to which this 2005 performance was impressive emerges when one notes the prevailing environment of governance in Dominica at that time. The DLP therefore achieved this 2005 feat despite the loss of not one, but two leaders in relatively short order and thereafter resting the government on the shoulders of a man who was, at the time, only 32 years old and in many ways an unknown political quantity.
In comparison, the region is replete with examples where the death of a popular leader threw the governing party into a state of confusion that ultimately resulted in it being excused from office. The death of Eric Williams in 1981 is widely believed to have precipitated the collapse of the People’s National Movement in 1986, and more recently the passing of Sir John Compton in St Lucia can be said to have contributed significantly to the demise of the United Workers’ Party government there in 2011.
Similarly, in Barbados, the passing of Tom Adams in 1985 was inextricably linked to the magnitude of the Barbados Labour Party’s (BLP) defeat in 1986, as was the case with the Democratic Labour Party’s almost 15-year sojourn in the political wilderness after losing Errol Barrow in 1987.
The somewhat precarious state of affairs within the Democratic Labour Party since the passing of David Thompson in 2010 will test the extent to which history repeats itself whenever Prime Minister Freundel Stuart calls the next election.
Although Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit was a risky political proposition in 2004, his selection appears to have paid tremendous dividends for the DLP since it further increased its popular support in 2009 to 62 per cent with another impressive nine per cent swing.
This means that the DLP government has enhanced its popular support on the two occasions it faced the electorate, and recorded popular electoral swings in its favour that were impressive both in local and regional contexts.
In contradistinction to the Dominica scenario, across the Caribbean most political parties which enter government enjoy a healthy improvement in their popular support initially, but governments invariably lose popular support at the end of their first five years, which is reflected in a negative electoral swing. The trend continues until that government loses and once more becomes a political party. The reason why this normally happens should perhaps also be explored, but it appears to have much to do with the difference between “politicking” and “governance”.
There have been some noteworthy examples that approach the Dominica model where governments experience momentary “bumps” in their support levels. Among these would be the BLP’s first-term Government which faced the polls in 1999 and enhanced its popular support to 65 per cent, which remains an unmatched national record.
Similarly, the New National Party (NNP) in Grenada, under the leadership of Dr Keith Mitchell, moved from 32 per cent of the popular vote in 1995 to 62 per cent in 1999 in that historic election where the NNP won every seat in Parliament.
Dr Denzil Douglas had a similar feat in St Kitts (2000) when he won every seat that his St Kitts-Nevis Labour Party contested, moving from 50 per cent of the popular votes cast to 54 per cent after a clearly outstanding first term.
Although these regional examples are all impressive, the Dominica model still distinguishes itself on account of the fact that the DLP has grown its support in government not once, but twice and remains the only example of a Caribbean party that changed leaders and still grew its support.
There is a developmental side to this popular growth and commentators would naturally argue about the extent to which this model of political stability has contributed to the overall development of Dominica. In this regard, the infrastructural developments there are difficult to miss, especially as one can finally fly into Dominica at night.
However, governance is a far more complex issue to analyze. Notwithstanding one’s perspective, it is difficult not to notice and admire this model of political performance that has set a standard for Caribbean political parties.
• Peter W. Wickham (email@example.com) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).
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