Barbados moves on

Last week Barbados celebrated its 46th anniversary of independence in the midst of what was obviously a strong sense of popular anticipation of general elections in the very near future. With the last general election held on January 15, 2008, both main political parties, the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) have already been active on the hustings in anticipation of elections in early January next year.

The DLP Prime Minister, Freundel Stuart, a lawyer, leading the party into general elections for the first time, is facing a substantial challenge for a variety of reasons. First he is constantly being compared with his predecessor, David Thompson who succeeded, in 2008, in defeating a BLP government which Owen Arthur had led for three successive terms. Thompson was perceived as a dynamic and charismatic political leader in the pattern of the party’s founder Errol Barrow, and his relatively sudden death unexpectedly threw Stuart, a somewhat taciturn figure, into leadership of the government and party.

It will be recalled that Thompson himself had replaced Clyde Mascoll as leader of the DLP in what had been seen as a political coup while the party was in opposition, and when Mascoll, an economist reacted by joining the Barbados Labour Party, he was in a position to become something of a thorn in Stuart’s side, supporting the experienced Arthur, himself an economist.

In that context, it is acknowledged that with the country not really recovering from the effects of the global recession of 2007 onwards, which was in part responsible for the BLP’s defeat in 2008, the central argument about the country’s future now turns on which party, and who, has the capability of pulling it out of its present situation of economic sloth.

A part of the despondency in the country about future possibilities for economic growth rests in the specific effects of the continued global recession on Barbados. In particular has been the crash of the Trinidad and Tobago (but regional) company Clico, which has had a major impact on Barbados and other countries in the East-Southern Caribbean. In response to this, Freundel Stuart’s government has seemed lackadaisical, and in doubt as to how to deal with the combined Clico-British American Insurance Company collapses. The DLP, and particularly David Thompson, had been known to have had particularly close relationships with the leadership of Clico, and there has seemed to be a certain reservation, and perhaps even fear, in coping with what has become a veritable can of worms.

The Clico affair, and the continuing, though apparently slowing, recession have allowed Owen Arthur space to reinvigorate his reputation as the person who, though the recession had damaged his own party’s prospects, had led the country through many years of prosperity. Arthur, too, has implicitly brought into the picture his own reputation as a regional leader, comparable to Errol Barrow in his heyday, while the DLP regime has been faced with much criticism from the region as appearing to be anti-regional, and in particular anti-immigration. While, indeed, there had been complaints from Guyana over the years about the apparent impediments placed in the way of persons seeking employment and doing business in Barbados, the DLP government has also been more recently hit by complaints from Jamaica relating to that country’s nationals, one of which has now reached the Caribbean Court of Justice.

In terms of its place in Caricom affairs, it cannot be said that Prime Minister Stuart has maintained the relatively high profile that Owen Arthur had developed, in respect of the country’s lead responsibility for implementation of the Caricom Single Market and Economy. In addition, it will have been noted that in the vote last week on Palestine’s resolution in the United Nations General Assembly, Barbados and the Bahamas abstained, while the other Caricom governments voted in favour.

But regional and international affairs are unlikely to play any significant part in the election campaign, or in the electorate’s choice between the two parties. With the country moving from a growth rate of 4.1% in 2006, to minus 4.2% in 2009 and 0.5% in 2011, the debate between the two parties will certainly be on who can now continue a  recent trend of an apparent, though slow return to growth. The controversy in the last months has spilled over from a verbal contest between the two parties, with the BLP, and in particular Owen Arthur, contesting the assessments and policy orientations of the Barbados Central Bank and its Governor Dr Delisle Worrell, whose reputation in the region is well known.

Some degree of gloom would appear to infect an electorate concerned that Barbados should begin to show prospects of maintaining the high per capita income for which it has become well known in international development banking circles. After all, the mid-decade recession led, as we have seen, to the BLP’s downfall. And a complementary concern in that context is, under which party is the country likely to be able to maintain its character as perhaps the most accomplished welfare state in the Caribbean, surpassing even Trinidad & Tobago.

For the Barbadians the stakes appear to be high. But this highly, politically conscious electorate, is also well aware of the extent to which the fate of its very open economy is so substantially dependent on the outcome of present depressing economic circumstances in the United States and the United Kingdom.

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