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PEOPLE & THINGS: Challenge for the Dems

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE & THINGS: Challenge for the Dems

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Since the achievement of universal adult suffrage in the Caribbean, it has more often than not been the case that a government, once elected, would be re-elected for a second term.
There have been relatively few occasions when this has not happened and it is therefore interesting that in both Jamaica and St Lucia, the recent elections have “bucked” the trend and provided intellectual fodder for the astute political commentator.
Such commentators would most likely be struck by the fact that a prevailing global economic climate has created a most unfavourable “batting pitch” for incumbents generally; hence where the incumbent is a first-term government, it would also be vulnerable to such circumstances.
There are however peculiar circumstances which have for example facilitated the re-election of President Barack Obama, and certainly the leader’s charisma would be one such. These factors are for the most part difficult to quantify and compare.
Therefore, this analysis speaks to the more quantifiable factors that will make this Democratic Labour Party (DLP) second term a challenging one. The focus here is of course on Barbados and use is made of available data since Independence which speaks to the popular support for the Government in previous election.
CADRES has found that one of the most significant and easily available reference points that guides the outcome of any election is the performance of the party in the previous election. In almost all instances there is a relationship between the party’s performance in successive elections.
If one properly contextualizes the performance in the preceding election, it makes projections possible and reliable. Reference to popular support is often controversial since it is often argued that a general election is a series of “30 by-elections” and as such, one cannot assume that national trends are applicable to constituency projections.
While CADRES does agree that such relationships are not absolute, we also argue that invariably the popular support for a party is perhaps the best indicator of how well or how badly a party is doing politically. Essentially, the Government would normally have 50 per cent or more popular support and where it falls below that level, it would normally lose, and where it has substantially more than 50 per cent, it would be considered strong. There are however exceptions and these will be discussed.
The review of second terms presented on the accompanying chart presents the level of popular support for the incumbent on each occasion to give a sense of the enormity of the challenge that various Governments have faced since Independence, and facilitates comparisons.
It begins with the presentation of popular support for the DLP in 1966 which was based on its 1961 performance. The 36 per cent support retained by the Dems into the 1966 election is somewhat misleading since those were the days of double-member constituencies which complicated the calculation of popular support.
Notwithstanding, it is entirely possible that the DLP did have a low level of popular support going into the 1966 poll and increased this substantially to 55 per cent on account of its promotion of Independence, which was promised immediately after the election if it was successful.
The 1981 Barbados Labour Party (BLP) second-term statistic is the first genuine instance where we can appreciate the relatively low level of popular support with which this Government went into the election.
It is interesting that this Government was equally as popular as the DLP government is today. Moreover, in both instances there is a majority of ten seats which could easily delude the casual observer into believing that both Governments were “strong”.  
In reality, however, a 53 per cent level of support is not reflective of governmental strength since electoral swings are generally in the vicinity of plus or minus five per cent. This means that unless the swing is abnormally low, a Government with 53 per cent popular support is quite weak and ought to approach the election with all its ducks in a row.
Presumably this is what the Adams administration of 1981 did and it won that election with an historic low swing of minus one per cent. Never before or since has there been an election in Barbados where a Government has lost so little support and this was reflected in a seat count which did not change (17) while the Opposition DLP gained three seats (two of which were newly created).
The 1991 DLP second term is clearly the “least” challenging second-term election that any Government has faced from the perspective of electoral support in the previous election. In that instance, the DLP had a surplus of nine per cent popular support and therefore survived the nine per cent swing.
Ironically, the next second-term election in 1999 appeared to be challenging since the BLP did not enjoy popular support nationally although it retained more support than any other political party. The outcome of that election is well known to be historic and like the BLP’s previous post-Independence second term, produced an historic swing, but this time in the positive direction (plus 16 per cent) which is also a feat that has not since been repeated.
The DLP challenge now therefore is to grapple with the reality of its slim 53 per cent level of popular support. The logical question is whether it has done any of the things that Tom Adams did in anticipation of the 1981 poll. Previous articles have noted the absence of boundary changes which were part of the Adams programme.
However, the extent to which the Adams charisma is matched by the Stuart charisma cannot be statistically measured. We can, however, agree that Adams had an advantage over Stuart in that he previously led his party to victory against the DLP in 1976.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).