ALL AH WE IS ONE: Strongman factor
The unfortunate illness of Prime Minister David Thompson has reawakened the Barbadian consciousness to the problem of political succession. Its characterisation as a “problem” is not meant to imply that succession necessarily translates to a difficulty for ruling governments.
Indeed, our exposure to the politics of mature democracies confirms that political succession does not mean political instability.
Instead, it is a problem in and of the Caribbean context, arising out of political culture, history, the underdevelopment of democracy, and our failure to develop succession mechanisms within parties.
This diagnosis of the problem as one which exists “within parties” allows for a prescription. Whilst the mechanism of leadership succession from one party to another is adequately addressed legislatively, it is largely ignored within political parties. Hence it emerges only in moments of crisis. It is necessary to explore why our parties are vulnerable to this disease.
The party in the Caribbean has never been an instrument of democratic growth. It is an instrument of political warfare. Its success is therefore assured by authoritarianism, not by democratic practice.
In such a context, tremendous power is invested in the hands of the maximum leader, and any concessions to deputies occur only when there is no choice. Writers like C.L.R. James have argued that despite our claims to a democratic tradition, our politics has been shaped by centuries of slavery and colonialism.
Rulers lead by force and fear. The people respond with cowed obedience or naked rebellion, with nothing in between. Our people therefore glory in the strongman because “this is what we do”.
In such a context, the last thing on the agenda is a succession plan, since that would be an affront to the leader. The deputy – if he is named – is diminished and suffers political devaluation. He appears to be “missing something” which nobody can pinpoint.
Thus, George Chambers failed following Dr Eric Williams, Vaughan Lewis failed following Sir John Compton, and Compton had to return, and Dame Eugenia Charles’ party is now dying.
Indeed, this fear of failure without the maximum leader explains why succession is so hotly denied. But denial is the philosophy of the ostrich.
Nor is the problem one of governments alone. Recently, the response of the Opposition Barbados Labour Party to its own succession challenges was to call on the elected members to resolve the issue. This was only partial response, with a partial solution.
A total response must be to deepen internal democracy. The whole party must be called upon to decide on leadership at regular intervals. Similarly, parties must develop consistent and democratic mechanisms for identifying future leadership outside of crisis periods. There should be clearly written rules to guide parties and governments in periods of incapacity and prolonged absences of leaders.
It is only then that anxiety will be removed from the national psyche in periods such as the one now facing Barbados.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus specialising in analysis of regional affairs.