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PETER WICKHAM: Focus on St Vincent


PETER WICKHAM: Focus on St Vincent

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LAST TUESDAY, St Vincent and the Grenadines celebrated its 36th birthday which coincidentally fell on the eve of a widely anticipated general election.

It was therefore somewhat surprising that Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves did not use the opportunity of this national celebration to announce the election date. The fact that he did not could mean a desire to separate an important national event from the party-political event that is the general election. It also helps us to better understand the Gonsalves date selection strategy and guess his likely date as one presumes that he will opt for the minimum number of days between his filing of the writ and the election day as is customary with an election that is still “early”.

If Gonsalves had announced the date last Tuesday, then Vincentians would have been voting towards the end of November, which he clearly thought was too early. If one takes note of the two elections he called previously in 2010 (December 13) and 2005 (December 7) it becomes clear that that he has preference for the December election and moreover the pre-Christmas election since both the 13 and 7 December dates were just prior to the Christmas scramble. If this contest, which he promises will be his last, conforms to his tradition, we can expect an announcement toward the middle of November and should therefore watch closely for any major public engagements around that time.

There is also considerable speculation regarding the likely outcome that surpasses that which normally accompanies elections in the Caribbean for several historic reasons. This would be one of few Caribbean elections were a government and leader sought to defend three terms, in pursuit of a fourth. Such occasions are rare in the Caribbean and if one were to follow the historic precedents the odds would be stacked against Gonsalves and the ULP. 

Gonsalves’ colleague Denzil Douglas achieved this feat, which demonstrates that it is possible and in that instance the Opposition (PAM) had much in common with the current St Vincent Opposition when it was defeated four times. Douglas’ Labour party was; however, in a much better comparative position in 2010 since achieved a clean sweep ten years earlier providing a much nicer “batting wicket” for him.

The other fascinating historical factor relates to the extent to which the pending election is anchored in the most recent past election. In the case of St Vincent, the comparable scenario of Grenada 2003 comes to mind where Dr Keith Mitchell survived with a one-seat majority and a close call in Carriacou giving rise to the humorous comment that he won that election by seven votes. There was no seven-vote margin in St Vincent; however, the fact Gonsalves got home with a single-seat majority does suggest an odious comparison for those who support him.

Gonsalves is optimistic about this election presumably because he understands the political outlook is also based on voting intentions that are contemporary. Critical is the national electoral swing that is at this time favourable based on recent polls conducted by CADRES. Summarily, Gonsalves needs to avoid a two per cent swing which could cost him two seats, (Central Leeward and North Windward) and the election. A defensive political stance would therefore be likely for these two seats, while working nationally to ensure that no negative swing materialises. The fact that the polls project a positive swing should mean that as a worst case scenario he should not experience any contraction in his support and can defend those seats.

The interesting thing about this election; however, is the fact that electoral gains for Gonsalves are as possible as electoral losses since a positive swing of two per cent could deliver two seats in much the same way that a negative two per cent could cost him two. Electoral growth of the order of two per cent would put the two Leeward seats in Gonsalves’ grasp and should the swing grow, he can cast his gaze upon Kingstown where his ULP lost its hold recently. If Gonsalves succeeds in growing his support base as he enters his fourth term he becomes a historic Caribbean leader, since while there have been a few leaders who have grown their support after one term (Arthur, Mitchell, Skerritt and Douglas), thus far none have done this on the eve of their fourth term.

This SVG election therefore presents itself as unique from the perspective of the razor thin margins which can mean that Gonsalves will either enter the history books, or will be excused from office in circumstances that are consistent with Caribbean traditions. The difference between these two outcomes is two percentage points on either side which is well below the margin of error of any scientific poll and it is therefore unsurprising that CADRES has thus far only said that the election will be “tight”.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]