Our Readers' Opinions
February 5, 2016
Whither goeth our democracy? – Part Two

by Oswald Fereira

Vincentian Democracy has its roots in the riots of 1935. After those riots, Vincentians received universal adult suffrage in 1951, when every adult over 21 years of age received the right to vote. That same year, the Eighth Army of the Liberation (the Army), led by George H Charles, won all eight seats in the general election. The names of the successful candidates, all well known in Vincentian political history, were Ebenezer Joshua, Julian Baynes, Rudolph Baynes, Samuel Slater, Herman Young, Clive Tannis, Evans Morgan and George Charles.{{more}} Shortly after the Army was elected, internal conflict led to its demise in 1952, when Ebenezer Joshua, together with the Baynes brothers and Samuel Slater formed the People’s Political Party (PPP).

My first recollection of the democratic process in SVG was during the 1950’s, before I was 10 years old, during the election of 1957. I grew up in Park Hill, which was then in the Central Windward constituency. The incumbent representative was George H Charles, formerly of the Army. His main opponent was Ebenezer Joshua, leader of the People’s Political Party (PPP). Both were founding members of the Army, but became bitter rivals, so much so that Joshua abdicated his North Windward constituency to his wife Ivy, in order to run against Comrade Charles in Central Windward. I believe that Comrade Charles was affiliated with the Independents, who dominated after the demise of the Army and I do recall another party, the People’s Liberation Movement (PLM), led by Herman Young. In those days, every candidate had a symbol. I cannot remember which candidate had which symbol, but I remember one symbol was the hoe and another was the fork and I remember the slogan “have faith in the fork” and I recall some people saying they will not vote for the hoe because the hoe meant hard labour. So, it was a case of get the wrong symbol and you were perhaps doomed. The PPP won that election handily. Comrade Charles lost his seat to Pappie Joshua and faded into political oblivion; so too did the PLM.

After the 1957 election and the demise of the PLM, a new political party emerged, the St Vincent Labour Party (SVLP), under Robert Milton Cato. The SVLP toiled in the doldrums for a while, but with the addition of the Baynes brothers and Samuel Slater from the PPP, it gained parity with the PPP and the two-party system was in full swing. A new era of divide and rule politics had emerged. Joshua had solidified his hold on the PPP and he practically became the party. Cato had also solidified his hold on the SVLP, but with a strong and supportive cast such as the Baynes brothers, Slater, Hudson Tannis, Herman Young, James Mitchell and later Papa Levi Latham, who crossed over from the PPP; he was the leader, but not totally the Party.

In my view, the dominant two-party system under Joshua and Cato was the start of political polarization in SVG. It was good to see the populace willing to participate. There was a lot of political energy, but it was far from productive. Just as a bitter rivalry developed between the PPP and the SVLP and their leaders, bitter rivalries developed among the population at large. Brother was pitted against brother, father against son, mother against daughter, village against village, neighbour against neighbour. The rivalries did not stop with the adults, as children were drawn into the political morass and were often taunted on the playing fields because of the political affiliations of their families. Park Hill became a staunch Labour village, the one Labour stronghold in Central Windward. Everyone knew the few homes in Park Hill, counted on one hand, that supported the PPP. The children from those homes had no playmates and they were left out when teams were picked for a game of cricket. When sugar and salt fish were in short supply, those homes went without, because the Labour shopkeepers would not sell those items to PPP supporters; they had to go to South Rivers to shop. Those were the days when if you supported one party and your neighbour supported the other, tie up your chickens, goats, pigs, cattle, and donkey, because should they stray across the boundary line, all sense of reason, fair play and neighbourliness were totally lost in the name of politics. Politics had morphed into a religion. I am sure that the experience was similar in villages across the nation. I recall reports of assaults with cutlasses during election campaigns. After the elections, we held mock burials for the losers. We did not know how to be humble in victory and accepting in defeat.

It was the start of political picong. Songs and choruses were relayed across party lines. As the PPP supporters sang “We pray that God will bless Joshua, that he will conquer his enemies…,” the SVLP supporters retorted with “We shall overcome” and “We shall not be moved” and “We will heng Comrade Joshua on the Gumba Limba tree…” It was also a time of name calling, from Big Head Cato, to Cucumber Heel Joshua, to Bull Rounce Walker and so forth. Politicians appealed to the lowest common denominator and political meetings were merely taunt sessions with cheap jokes and ridicule to see who could generate the most laughter. I could excuse the populace then, because those were the days when there was no TV and few homes had radios and there was no social media, so, sad to say, this form of cheap entertainment was welcomed and has become deeply rooted in Vincentian society.

Intolerance was rampant. If the PPP tried to hold a meeting in Park Hill, no one would allow them to plug in their mike and they were shouted at and booed or even stoned. The PPP vehicles were often blocked and beaten if they tried to pass through Park Hill. I am sure that the SVLP experienced similar treatment in PPP strongholds. The opposite view was never tolerated or given an airing. It was also a time when a few days before an election there would be distribution of galvanize sheets and lumber, rum, a few dollars here and there and some tee shirts with the party symbols, in order to sway voters. So sad that some people would resort to sell something as sacred as their vote for mere trinkets.

We saw the ushering in of political graffiti. The symbol of the PPP was the clock and the symbol of the SVLP was a red star. During election campaigns, our streets, walls, fences, bridges, lamp posts, even houses were plastered with red stars and clocks. We wore these symbols on tee shirts to show our support for “our” party and we even flew the tee shirts as flags. If “our” party sent out buses to have a rally, we filled them to capacity and abandoned our villages to rally around their banner. The parties had full control over our daily lives. We wore our party affiliation on our sleeves, so much so that everyone knew how we voted; so much for the ballot being secret. It was also a time when after every election was over many teachers, policemen, nurses and some civil servants were transferred to what were considered as hardship areas such as Sandy Bay, Fancy, Chateaubelair and the Grenadines, supposedly based on how they voted.

I experienced those exchanges, so I know of what I speak. It was the start of what I like to call “political insanity” that consumed us all, children and adults alike, and I look back upon it with great abhorrence.

My next article, which will be published on February 9, will deal with the 2015 election campaign. (Part One was published in Midweek Searchlight on February 2, 2016)