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December 11, 2015
A Caribbean colossus: the Ralph Gonsalves ascendancy

by Dr Garrey Michael Dennie, St Mary’s College of Maryland

“Why man he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus

And we petty men walk under huge feet to find ourselves dishonourable graves.”

As the NDP’s leadership and their followers look upon the ruins of their latest campaign to remove Dr Ralph Gonsalves from his position atop the Vincentian political ladder, they may have cause to ponder, and perhaps even sympathize with Cassius’ lament to Brutus on the preeminent position Julius Caesar occupied as Rome’s all-powerful ruler.{{more}} Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar,” was written in 1599, and he was writing of events which by our calendar had transpired in Rome more than 2,000 years ago. But it is the peculiar genius of Shakespeare to find the language that captures the human condition across time and space. For as the fog of this election battle clears, there can be no doubt: Dr Ralph Gonsalves stands as the most successful political leader in the history of St Vincent and the Grenadines bar none, and in the process, he has entered the ranks of the pioneering politicians of an independent Caribbean – among them Eric Williams, Michael Manley, and Errol Barrow – whose impact on their islands and the broader Caribbean is a defining component of their legacy.

To grasp more fully Dr Ralph Gonsalves’ achievement, we need to place this within the broader scope of the history of Vincentian national elections. Vincentians first exercised the right to vote in 1951, more than 60 years ago. Within that time Vincentians have gone to the polls 17 times. Out of that process we have elected five national leaders – George Charles (1951-57), Ebenezer Joshua (1957-67), Milton Cato (1967-72, 1974-84), James Mitchell (1972-74, 1984-2001), and of course, Dr Ralph Gonsalves since 2001. If the most visible marker of political success is winning political office, with this latest victory, Dr Gonsalves has now tied Sir James Mitchell in leading his party to electoral success four times in a row. Beyond that, however, the political trajectories of Dr Gonsalves and James Mitchell parties are completely different. In fact these differing political trajectories explain why the NDP is in urgent need of a forensic political analysis that could allow the party to win national elections. And they confirm, of course, why Dr Gonsalves is now looking down on the debris of the NDP’s campaign that failed to dislodge him from office.

Think of it this way. Between 1984 and 2015, the NDP has participated in eight national elections, winning the first four and losing the last four. If we graph the electoral successes and failures of the Mitchell/Eustace led NDP, however, a rather interesting fact emerges. The NDP won the popular vote between 1984 and 1994. It has never done so since. And it began with Mitchell, who after winning 66 per cent of the popular vote in 1989 won a mere 45 per cent in 1998. In 2001, with the party still reeling from the James Mitchell’s years of poor leadership, the NDP sunk to 40 per cent of the national vote, the worst showing in its history. The burden of Eustace has been clear from day one: to repair the NDP from the disasters of James Mitchell. And in this he has failed – time and time again.

The cause of Eustace’s failures could be encapsulated in two words: Ralph Gonsalves. If the obligation of the opposition party is to prosecute its case against the governing party, the case Dr Ralph Gonsalves made against the NDP in 1998 destroyed the moral case for the NDP’s holding on to the levers of power. Because although the NDP won electoral office by a margin of one seat, never before in the history of Vincentian politics did a government, rejected by 55 per cent of the voters, exercise governing authority over them. The Road Block Revolution of 2000 prevailed precisely because the NDP lacked majority support. And the 2001 election of Dr Ralph Gonsalves and the ULP by nearly 60 per cent of the popular vote simply confirmed that.

Those two earlier electoral successes set the stage for what has become an unprecedented feat in the history of Vincentian politics: the ULP has won the popular votes in five elections in a row. This election also marks the fourth time in the history of St Vincent and the Grenadines that the shift of one constituency determined the outcome of the election. But that itself masks the scale of Gonsalves’ victory: a shift of fewer than 10 votes in North Leeward would have made this a 9-6 victory.

In seeking an answer to their electoral problems, the NDP might do well to consult Shakespeare:

“Men at times are masters of their fates, the fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”

Dr Ralph Gonsalves understood that.