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December 18, 2015
The Gonsalves Mandate and the authority of Vincentian history

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

In 1966, almost 50 years ago, Ebenezer Joshua led the PPP to a 5-4 victory over the Labour Party. Eight months later, Governor Hywell George dissolved the Government, leading to new elections in 1967. In 1972, just five years later, a non-aligned politician named James Mitchell joined Joshua’s PPP to defeat the Labour Party in a 7-6 victory. Mitchell’s decision to join the PPP still stands as the most naked act of political opportunism in the history of St Vincent and the Grenadines.{{more}} With the Labour Party and the PPP tied at six seats a piece, Mitchell’s position was pretty simple: I will join the party that makes me Premier. But in 1974, just two years later, the Mitchell government collapsed. The message sent by the Vincentian electorate seemed quite clear: governments established on a one-seat margin collapse. Indeed, the 1998 election of the NDP by an 8-7 margin and its subsequent collapse in 2001 seemingly re-confirmed the 40-year-old principle: one-seat governing majorities cannot complete their term.

The election of the Gonsalves’ government in 2010 by an 8-7 margin and its re-election in 2015 by the identical margin challenges that understanding. In effect, the Vincentian electorate had expanded upon its instructions regarding the viability of one-seat governing majorities.

Some context is necessary here. The 1998-2015 period easily represents the most tumultuous period in Vincentian politics. The numbers support this: three of the last five elections have been won by a one-seat margin. In 1998, the NDP survived the ULP challenge to win the election by an 8-7 margin. However, in 2001 the ULP formed the Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines after it ousted the NDP from power, winning 12 seats and losing three. Five years later the ULP again defeated the NDP and secured 10 seats for itself, while the NDP gained five.

In 2010, however, the Vincentian electoral landscape underwent a dramatic shift. A resurgent NDP cut deep into the ULP’s electoral majority and left the ULP clinging on to power by an 8-7 margin. And led by talk radio, a feature of Vincentian political culture that emerged over the last decade, the NDP launched a sustained campaign to challenge the governing credentials of a greatly weakened ULP party. Even if at times more crass than smart, and at others more reflexive than deliberative, the NDP’s position was clearly intelligible: no one seat governing party had ever completed its term. More importantly, each and every one of them had lost their bid for re-election.

But neither of these fates befell the ULP. They became the only one-seat governing majority in the history of St Vincent and the Grenadines to compete their term in office. And in yet another historic first, they became the only such government to be re-elected to office.

These historic achievements by Gonsalves’ ULP offer an unexpected insight into the evolution, character, and wisdom of the Vincentian electorate between 1966 and 2015. To do so, we simply have to ask the question, why did the Gonsalves led ULP succeed in completing its term in office where all its predecessors in the identical situation failed? And the answer here is simple: the ULP survived because it did more than simply win one more seat than the opposing party. Instead, unlike its predecessors, the ULP also won the popular vote.

In truth, in 2010 the ULP’s winning margin was quite slender – a 51.1 per cent of the total votes cast. But consider this: in 1966 the Joshua led government won 49 per cent of the popular vote. In 1972, the Joshua-Mitchell forced post-election union gained 49.6 per cent of the popular vote. And of course, in the worst case of its kind, the Mitchell government of 1998 only garnered 45 per cent of the popular vote. Hence, although the ULP government of 2010 held, and its new incarnation of 2015 continues to hold a one-seat advantage over the NDP, the ULP’s strength within the popular vote effectively immunized the ULP from the disease of “unpopularity,” which had been fatal to all parties who had governed with only a one-seat margin.

One should note, of course, that from the very beginning the Vincentian electoral process operated on the principle that the government would be formed by the political party that won the majority of constituencies. And although winning the popular vote was certainly the ideal outcome, the laws and constitution of St Vincent contemplated the probability that sometimes the popular vote and the allocation of seats by constituency would not always converge. However, with the first four elections from 1951 to 1961 producing a complete convergence between the winner of the popular vote and the winner of the election, the Vincentian electorate embraced the idea that genuine political legitimacy was derivative, not simply from winning the majority of constituencies, but from winning the popular vote as well. Hence, when the 1966 election produced the first divergence between the winner of the popular vote and the winner of the election, the Vincentian electorate resisted this outcome, crippled the government capacity to carry out its governing functions, and within eight months marched the country into a new election. The elections of 1972 and 1998 of unpopular governments met with the same fate of their 1966 counterpart. In essence, the Vincentian electorate had issued an instruction to its political parties and it reads: whereas the legitimacy derived from winning the majority of constituencies was a constitutional necessity, a true mandate to govern could only be constructed on the platform of the popular vote.

No Vincentian politician understood this electoral instruction better than Dr Ralph Gonsalves. Perhaps his training as a lawyer allowed him to recognize how the ambition of constitutional law could run aground on the rocks of the real world. Perhaps his training as a political scientist allowed him to understand more keenly that the consent of the governed is the strongest currency in the domain of politics. What is certain, however, is that in constructing an 8-7 margin in two consecutive electoral cycles, the ULP has built an electoral firewall that guarantees two things: first, it would win eight seats and hence meet the constitutional threshold of winning the majority of seats necessary to form the government; and second it would do so by winning a commanding control of the popular vote and hence protect its governing legitimacy as the embodiment of the national will. Put simply, the ULP’s one seat margin of victory in 2010 was the strongest such margin in the history of St Vincent and the Grenadines and immunized it from the perils of its predecessors. And in the just completed elections of 2015, this has grown even stronger.

The strength of the ULP’s one seat margin reflects a fundamental mathematical reality: the ULP’s margin of victory in the eight seats needed to form the Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines is greater than its margin in the popular vote. And this has been the case across four elections cycles from 2001 to 2015. Of course, in 2001 and 2005 the ULP won more than eight seats. This 2015 cycle offers the latest example of this phenomenon. The ULP has won the popular vote by about five percentage points. But in the weakest of the eight seats that it currently holds (Central Leeward and North Windward), the ULP won these seats by about six percentage points. In the other six seats, the ULP has established double digit leads, making them all but invulnerable to an NDP takeover in the near future. And in fact, it gets worse: the ULP has also won all eight seats four elections in a row, and six of them five times in a row.

However, nothing better illustrates the scale of the ULP’s victory in this election cycle than the three losses it endured in East Kingstown, North Leeward, and South Leeward. Here the ULP lost those seats by the smallest of margins, less than one per cent in two cases, and just over one per cent in the other. Basically, having firewalled its hold on power within eight seats, the ULP then fought the NDP to a statistical tie within two seats and a minimal defeat in one. Put simply, the ULP improved its position to an extent where the probability of the ULP winning the election by an 11-4 margin is significantly greater than the NDP returning to power by the 8-7 margin that it enjoyed in 1998.

And this is in fact the supreme irony of the NDP’s 8-7 margin of victory in 1998: the scale of its defeat within the popular vote has continued to burden the party across four more election cycles. Both minority government of 1966 and 1972 actually obtained just over 49 per cent of the vote and still fell. The Mitchell led government of 1998, however, lost the popular vote by nearly 10 percentage points and only succeeded in holding on to power because of an earlier decision to split the Grenadines into two constituencies, thereby guaranteeing the NDP one more secured seat. As the “unpopular” NDP argues for its return to power on an 8-7 margin, it would do well to remember that this would fly in the face of the Vincentian historical experience, which bestows governing legitimacy not only on winning of the majority of seats, but on winning the popular vote as well. Because for now one thing is absolutely clear: the Gonsalves Mandate is embedded within the authority of Vincentian history.