Unanticipated departures

Over the last three years the region has experienced now three unanticipated departures from political leadership, interestingly enough in the countries which we have designated in Caricom terms as the More Developed Countries. Two of them have been a result of what might be called human frailty, and the other of natural causes.

First, in Trinidad & Tobago, PNM Prime Minister Patrick Manning, having won, in November 2007, a substantial victory of 26 seats to the opposition UNC’s 12, suddenly, at least to the electorate, decided to call fresh elections in May 2010. He lost, 29 to 12, the mandate given to him by the people only two-and-a-half years earlier. Then Barbados Prime Minister David Thompson, having in 2008 taken his Democratic Labour Party to victory over Owen Arthur’s Barbados Labour Party which had ruled for fourteen years, fell ill and died in 2010 without really having placed a stamp on his country’s social and economic life. But he did bring back onto the regional agenda the issue of the pros and cons of regional migration in terms of the economic and social capabilities of countries, specifically his own, to absorb immigrants. In this case there was not a change of government but of leadership from within the DLP. And then only last week, as we commented, Prime Minister Bruce Golding voluntarily ceded the leadership of his Jamaica Labour Party and of the government of Jamaica, having governed for four years, out of the usual five, on the basis of a slim majority of 32-28.

Up to the present there is much debate in Trinidad & Tobago over the reasons for which Mr Manning called early elections. It has been observed that the government came under strain substantially induced by itself, this being said in the context of the largely one-man domination of the political systems of our region. Some critics put his decision to go to the electorate early, on a growing sense of megalomania leading to a further sense of invincibility. They saw no reason for early polls since, unlike other Caribbean countries, Trinidad did not appear to be suffering unduly from the effects of the recession affecting the major Western countries at that time. Good energy prices gave the country’s leadership much confidence to proceed on a further push of industrialization while subsidizing energy prices locally, a privilege not available to other regional economies.

But other critics focused on a personalization of the use of state corporations that seemed to award contracts to favourites not simply of the party, but of the Prime Minister. Current investigations into the functioning of the state corporation UDECOTT (Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad & Tobago) suggest some support for this view. And it was noted that the Prime Minister’s approach to decision-making in that and other respects, led to a major rift between himself and the next most prominent member of the party, Dr Keith Rowley, leading to friction within the party as a whole. The combination of internal conflict and external pressure from, in particular business interests disturbed at Manning’s style, seem to have led him to decide his chances on an early election before more pressure built up. Manning certainly did not anticipate the rapid unification of the opposition forces, combining the ethnically based UNC and the Congress of the Party with the PNM’s traditional opponents in the labour movement. And now, the dramatic electoral turnaround seems to suggest that the new coalition faces a problem of an insufficient preparatory time for a meeting of minds that would ensure continuing stability. Prime Minister Persad Bissessar herself periodically has shown an unstable hand, and an important anchor of the coalition, Jack Warner, the victim of external pressure deriving from the FIFA corruption controversy, seems to have lost some of the authority that he had.

In Barbados, David Thompson well realized that he had a difficult task of matching the record of a predecessor who had been well recognized as having restored the economy of the country from its early 1990s difficulties, having weathered an involvement with the IMF without the usual domestic political negatives experienced by either Jamaica or Trinidad & Tobago in earlier times. But Owen Arthur’s Barbados Labour Party government had, by the 2008 election, begun to succumb to accusations of both tiredness and incipient corruption; and David Thompson, during the elections utilized the issue of migration (focused largely on Guyanese migrants) which had developed as a result of the very growth of the economy which Arthur had fostered, and which had led to a demand for external labour.

David Thompson’s pursuit of the issue following his ascent to office, after the general elections had focused on the terms of the so-called contingent rights of migrants and the strains that they might put on the social system and the budgetary process, was not welcomed by other countries in the region, and the matter was only put to rest by placing it, as it were in exile, on the agenda of Caricom Heads of Government for further study. But it is also fair to conclude that Thompson’s death, combined with the less contentious personality of his successor, Freundel Stuart, has muted the salience of the issue as a regionally contentious one. Thompson’s death too, has probably allowed for a more quiet approach to the now equally contentious issue of the Clico affair. For the former Prime Minister personally, and as leader of the DLP, had been known to have an extremely close relationship with the Clico leadership in Barbados.

And so to Prime Minister Bruce Golding in Jamaica. He has now had to admit, after years and years of persistent striving to sit on the throne, that a major error of judgement, based it would appear on his desire to protect his party, and in some measure his own electoral seat, from jeopardy, led to an untenable dispute with the Government of the United States. Golding, like other Jamaican leaders, was well aware of the close affinity that the Jamaican population has with the United States, partly as a result of extensive migration to that country.

Like Michael Manley at an earlier time, he came to learn that offending the US was hard to justify to the people, given, as well, the nature of the country’s tourism-dependent economy. In his anxiety he came also to offend much of the Jamaican middle class as he seemed to concede, eventually, that he had sought to use his party’s and the government’s machinery, to manipulate (or as he would say, to seek to persuade) the American legal machinery and process that its course of action re Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, would be offensive to the Jamaican Constitution. Yet general opinion concluded from his arguments that what appeared to be a protective stance vis-à-vis the US request for Coke’s extradition, was really a defence of his own electoral prospects since Coke was resident in his political constituency. At this point, his prospects of holding on to office, and for an electoral victory, came to a dead end.

Golding retires from office just a few months away from general elections, and at a time when the opposition leads in the polls. The extent of his unpopularity restricted him from using the choice of election date, within the limited time available, as an instrument of election advantage. The polls will have told him that, and given him no choice in the face of a party, out of power for eighteen years during the reign of P J Patterson, that is anxious to see if a change of leadership can do the trick. Manning misunderstood the extent of the rapid coalition of interest groups against him, so his use of the choice of date as a weapon, was to no avail.

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