December 16, 2005
De Comrade back for second term

by Tony Fraser

Part I

Kingstown – It is difficult in the welter of claims and counter claims, propaganda from both sides and media polarized into different corners for the visiting journalist to determine whether or not the society has benefited from the first term of the Unity Labour Party in office.

Re-elected for another term on a massive blitz of information closely allied to block-o-rama-type rallies that reverberated to the live sounds of Third World, Beres Hammond, Byron Lee and Sanchez, Prime Minister, Ralph “de Comrade” Gonsalves, insisted on the morning of his swearing-in that the electorate gave the ULP a second term on the basis of policies and programmes and his own leadership.{{more}}

The record of achievement listed in the ULP’s manifesto is impressive: 50 major projects delivered; another 77 in the process of completion and 40-odd non-physical projects also in the works; four successive years of economic growth measuring an average of 4 per cent; 8,000 jobs created and all the wonderful things a ruling party can put in a manifesto.

The campaign also promised the consummation of a series of major projects including the cross-country highway, the international airport, which could make a significant difference to the economy, polity and society of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the rehabilitation of the Arnos Vale playing field to host warm-up games in the 2005 cricket World Cup.

Purely on the basis of observation in Kingstown and surrounding areas and from the mood and activity at the political rallies of the ULP and the opposition New Democratic Party, the economy and society seemed vibrant, even prosperous for many.

The qualification must however be that an election period is artificially inflated with economic activity: no end to flags, rags, jerseys; bussing supporters to meetings; many fists folded with $100 bills; vehicular movement; smoking roadside bar-b-que pits; fully employed sound suppliers – imported ones, too, signaling an early opening of the CSME; visiting prime ministers and their cavalcades.

The opposition party, NDP – the Green Party was there in name – far less extravagant and obviously not as well financed – and that also says something about how it is perceived by financial investors willing to bet on the outcome of the poll, nevertheless contributed to the sense of economic activity of the last four weeks. As could be expected, the opposition through its major spokesperson on economic matters, political leader, Arnhim Eustace, told the story of the economy plunging into the abyss and the country facing several kinds of crises.

From the observatory, the landscape of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, like everywhere else in the Caribbean, continues to be one of discernible prosperity for the upper and middle classes with large numbers of people living on the margins, outside of the modern economy making ends meet sometimes using unconventional means.

On the eve of the election, Prime Minister Gonsalves delivered on a basic essential under Petro Caribe, cooking gas cylinders at EC$16 below the going price. Nevertheless, the government faces the reality of what to do about life after bananas while tourism is a project in the making with a need for major infrastructural transformation to compete with the likes of the Dutch and Spanish Caribbean, the U.S. Virgin Islands, The Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua and others.

To hazard a conclusion on all of this would be to say that after the first five years, the ULP provided sufficient of a basis for the population to return it so overwhelmingly to office, moreover, that Vincentians continue to be in love with the personality of and leadership provided by the De Comrade, known universally as “Ralph”.

Having been all but squandered in the 2001 polls and left for dead, the NDP under the solid re-building skills but less flamboyant leadership of Arnhim Eustace staged something of a comeback from the obliteration projected under ULP’s triumphant march.

The macro electoral figures are of some interest. The NDP received 25,655 votes, 44 per cent of the 91,500 eligible electors compared to the 23,844 or 40.91 percent of the 2001 election. This time around, the ULP totaled 32,015 or just over 55 per cent of the overall vote compared with the 32,925 or 56.49 per cent of 2001.

And while we do not want to put too fine a point on the marginal differences between the two parties over the two elections, it would seem that the NDP received the 1,500 votes that went last time to the third party, the PPM, which did not contest in 2005; while there was a one per cent fall off in support for the ULP in last week’s poll.

Prime Minister Gonsalves put the fall-away factor down to negligence on the part of a few of his candidates. I find it interesting though that one of the ULP heavy rollers – and dear Ms. René Baptiste would know that the description has nothing to do with her size but rather her visibility in government and in the campaign – called-out a seemingly inexhaustible number of projects achieved in her constituency but yet the opposition candidate was able to significantly (and this has to be taken in relation to the overall absolute numbers) close the 132-vote margin of 2001 to a mere 35 votes this time around.

A similar kind of consideration could be given to the reality of the marginal decline in the overall ULP votes from the 32, 925 of 2001 to 32,015 in 2005. It is near impossible to make any serious comparison on the percentage as it is agreed that the voters list is bloated by over 20,000 persons who have migrated from the country over a long period of time. We shall come to that when we look at the recommendations made by the observer teams and the claims of the opposition.

As small as the numbers are, the voter slippage is of significance, moreover that the concentrated march on the citadels of the NDP in East Kingstown and the Grenadines were rebuffed with heavy artillery.

On the other hand, it is not sufficient for the NDP to gain a couple hundred more votes; seats determine elections. Also, a glance at the NDP crowd indicates that the support base remains stagnated, the same group left behind by Sir James Mitchell.

Next week a few of the issues surrounding visiting prime ministers, the increasing polarization of Vincentian society, media houses included and the need for electoral reform.

To be continued next week

• Tony Fraser is a BBC Caribbean Correspondent.