Earlier this month SEARCHLIGHT had an exclusive interview with Prime Minister Gonsalves during which he shared his views on aspects of the succession issue facing his party when he decides to leave. Though he made it clear that his departure was far from imminent, he explained that the Unity Labour Party (ULP) already has set in train a process for determining who will succeed him as Party Leader. The post of Prime Minister is one which constitutionally must be decided by elected Parliamentarians.
If anything, one can only say that Dr Gonsalves and his party are in the envied position of being spoiled for choice, and indeed the succession problem must be a good one to have, especially given the early identification of possible successors. Two of his Ministers, Agriculture Minister, Saboto Caesar and Finance Minister, Camillo Gonsalves are widely expected to be the contenders.
It is never easy to replace long-standing leaders of the calibre of Dr Gonsalves. The opposition NDP found this out rather painfully on the departure of the late Sir James Mitchell and though there have been two successors, neither has been able to fill the substantial void. Whatever the choice, the ULP must expect to have some adjustment pains.
How it handles the succession will have a lot of bearing on the future of the party. Dr Gonsalves had made it clear that he was concerned about managing the succession in an orderly manner and explained that he wishes to avoid internal division and strife over the matter. According to him, the organs and membership of the party are being canvassed to see whether a consensus is possible.
But what if no consensus is arrived at? Does it necessarily mean intractable divisions, or does it indicate the desire for a healthy inner-party democratic process leading to a free and fair vote at the upcoming Convention at the end of July? Party members who support one or the other might be strong in their choice and believe that the best way to handle it is to have a free vote at the Convention.
What is important is that the process does not deteriorate into a bitter battle of personalities thereby damaging the party’s internal unity. Both candidates have different strengths, and it will not just be the choice of one over the other, which is important, but the degree to which those strengths are marshalled for the common good and the “loser” accepts the will of the Convention.
It is also critical that both internally and in the wider society the succession process be seen and respected as an open democratic choice, and doubts about any possible stage managing are dispelled. The fact that one of the contenders is none other than the first son of PM Gonsalves will always raise suspicions in some quarters, so transparency throughout the process is essential.
In the long run, a free and open vote on the Convention floor does not necessarily have to be divisive. It is how the process is conducted that is vitally important.