Last Sunday, March 28, the governing Unity labour party celebrated the 20th anniversary of its historic election victory in 2001. The celebrations were, understandably, low-keyed given the ongoing COVID pandemic, though one can justifiably question why there was not a more concerted effort to mark the occasion in a more creative manner.
It is no mean feat, first to defeat a party which not only had an unbroken 17 years in power, but had also achieved the feat, unprecedented in our context, of winning every single seat in the elections of 1989. Only the 8th Army of Liberation, by no means a cohesive political party, had swept the local polls in the first election held after Adult Suffrage in 1951. The ULP has been able to hold on to power in spite of all sorts of challenges, winning the elections of 2005, 2010 (in spite of a defeat in the referendum of 2009), 2015 and 2020. It is now still counting, with a possible four-plus years to go.
For all these reasons, irrespective of one’s political or personal leanings, the Gonsalves-led Government and party, deserves congratulations. It has stayed the course and has an impressive resume of accomplishments to its credit. There are negatives of course, as is to be humanly expected, but to have persevered in the face of all the multiple challenges- of natural disasters and climate change, of global financial disasters and pandemics, has been no easy accomplishment. If nothing else, the stability brought about is a quality to be treasured and maintained.
However, 20 years of governance under one party and one leader, itself raises a number of questions. Thus, again and again, the issue of whether such longevity in office is good for our democracy. Opponents of the government often charge that such a situation can easily lead to virtual one-party rule and anti-democratic tendencies.
In this a lot depends on whether the years in power have brought about in a manner not easily reversed, deepening democracy in the society. In the early days of the ULP government, one could observe positive measures to encourage greater participation of people in governance. The government itself engaged in a process of including persons outside Cabinet in formulating its much-touted 100-days programme.
It proceeded to reach out to the labour movement, whose battles had helped to bring down the NDP government, in some form of consultation. It engaged civil society in consultations and took the unprecedented step of legislating an institutional form of government/civil society cooperation in the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC). More participatory processes never before attempted came in the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC), a civil-society led body, and in the drafting and consultation of the first-ever 20-year Development Plan. On both of these latter initiatives, even Vincentians living abroad were facilitated in the consultation process.
Yet over the years there have been increasing signs of either tiredness or weakening of commitment to such participatory bodies. The Report of the Local Government Reform Commission never saw the light of day, and there are still no elected local government bodies. The defeat in the 2009 referenduum seemed to have quelled the ULP’s appetite for constitutional change, the bold initiative for pre-Budget consultation has lost much of its practical value; NESDC is no more. We could go on and on.
Impressive as the 20 years of ULP governance has been, the fundamental issue of the deepening of democracy cannot be left to whims and fancies. In congratulating the ULP on its 20-year rule we cannot be blind to shortcomings, nor relent on the demand for a deepening of the democratic process.