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PEOPLE & THINGS: Making history

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE & THINGS: Making history

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If the trend established in the September NATION/ CADRES poll continues, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) would again be making history, although this time it would not be in a good way.
Reference is made here to the likelihood of Barbados’ first one-term Government and it is therefore useful to reflect on the circumstances that have given rise to this electoral peculiarity.  
It is most ironic that the DLP, which ushered in Independence, free education and other “firsts”, is now the party that seems set to become the first political party to be ushered out of office after just one term.
This irony and the uniqueness of this occasion should prompt the commentator to reflect on similar circumstances within neighbouring political spheres that can help us to understand the unique circumstances that give rise to this historic change in political trends.
There is little precedent that can be drawn on locally since we have never had a one-term Government after any of the two important political markers, which would be Independence and universal adult suffrage.
Indeed, Harold Hoyte reminded us recently that we have never even known a Minister of Government to lose his seat after the first term.
Our tradition has been an almost perfect “regularity of alternation” between the two main parties, with an orderly reduction in support for both Governments after the first term, which has traditionally culminated in an exit after the second.
The term “regularity of alternation” was coined by the founder of CADRES, the late Patrick Emmanuel, who identified this political exchange that was historically seen most noticeably in Jamaica and Barbados.
In both instances, that regularity has been disrupted since Emmanuel alluded to it in 1991.
In the case of Barbados and Jamaica, it is interesting that we have had the first post-Independence three-term governments in Barbados (Barbados Labour Party 1994-2008) and Jamaica (People’s National Party 1993-2007) which “disrupted” the political patterns in both these places.
It is therefore not surprising that other peculiar political events would occur in both of these places and the one-term Jamaica Labour Party government (2007-2011) seems curiously proximate to the pending one-term DLP Government (2008-2013).
Jamaica is not the only Caribbean territory where a one-term government has emerged. There have indeed been others, but the Jamaica reference point is preferred since, like Barbados, Jamaica has a fully developed two-party system in which both parties have a healthy tradition of governance.
There is indeed another category of one-term governments. However, these are instances in which the government essentially “belongs” to one party which loses its grip on power temporarily and “lends” the reins of government to the other party for a short time.
The two best examples of this variant are presented in Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua and Barbuda (up until recently) and it is perhaps expedient to distinguish these two examples from ours.
Trinidad and Tobago is a racially polarized political environment where the first-past-the-post system combines with the geographical location of the racial groups to ensure that the People’s National Movement (PNM) has dominated their politics. As long as a political leader understands the reality of this lethal cocktail of race, political system and geographical location, he can remain in power and certainly, Eric Williams understood this.
It took the combined effort of an alliance named the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) to temporary wrest power from the PNM in 1986 for one term. After that alliance fell, the major coalition partner, the United Labour Front (ULF), regrouped under its own banner – the United National Congress (UNC) – and wrested power from the PNM again in 1995.
The UNC won the 2000 election. However, that government quickly lost popularity and was forced to return to the polls (twice). The PNM re-emerged in 2002 and governed until it again lost to the People’s Partnership (PP) Coalition in 2010. The future of the PP Coalition is yet in the balance, but this illustration presents a model where a one-term government reflects a temporary exhaustion of the electorate with the PNM.
This exhaustion can arise on account of several factors and more important be mitigated by others. Clearly, the combined impact of the global economic crisis, rampant corruption and the passing of Eric Williams in 1981 triggered a temporary collapse of the PNM government in 1986.
The failure of the NAR (one-term) government, however, had as much to do with the departure of the UNC from the coalition and it was related to the PNM’s recovery between 1986 and 1991.
In Antigua, the case study is very different since there is no race factor, although the emergence of a non-native born Antiguan population that was recently estimated at 30 per cent of the population (CADRES 2009) could have effectively displaced the race factor.
Antigua has traditionally been Antigua Labour Party (ALP) and to some extent “Bird” country since the father-son team governed that nation since universal adult suffrage in 1951 and only gave way temporarily to the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM) in 1971.
That PLM opportunity presented itself on account of a deep rift in the Antigua Trades and Labour Union (ATLU) which, like the Barbados Workers’ Union in Barbados, was the bedrock of the ALP. This split and subsequent emergence of the Antigua Workers’ Union (AWU) created an opening for the PLM to emerge as the government there.
As was the case in Trinidad, however, the ALP settled, regrouped and recaptured the government on the occasion of the next election.
Although the Barbados case is dissimilar from the Antigua/Trinidad model and closer to that of Jamaica, there are some similarities to the Trinidad case in that the death of Williams clearly contributed to the PNM loss in 1986. Like George Chambers, Freundel Stuart succeeded David Thompson early in the term and also did not take advantage of the sympathetic moment when the prime minister died to call an election.
Although some might disagree, neither Stuart nor Chambers was a match for the charisma of their predecessors. Both governed on their “own steam” for long enough to be pummelled for the sins of “their” administrations, although many of these sins were not of “their” making. As such, the leaders owned problems that they could have done without and, in the case of Chambers, his was the rampant PNM corruption coupled with a dramatic fall in the price of oil on the global market.
Stuart’s challenges are less about corruption and more about a global recession that he seems more inclined to allude to in speeches instead of challenging by way of policy.
This analysis has not ignored the case of St Lucia which is also clearly proximate to that of Barbados, but lacks the regularity of alternation that both Barbados and Jamaica manifest. The St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) had a one-term government (1979-1982) but it has also had “three-term” governments on both sides since universal adult suffrage.
This pattern makes it less proximate to Barbados for these purposes. It is noteworthy, however, that in St Lucia, the comparative charisma of a leader who succeeded one who died in office would have contributed to the United Workers Party’s one-term reign.
All indicators now point to a similar outcome locally to which the comparative charisma of Prime Minister Stuart would undoubtedly be a factor.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).