In less than a year now, Barbados will be going to the polls, following the last general elections held in January 2008. The signs are that both of the main political parties, but the opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) in particular, are once again gearing up, and the issues that will define the campaign are beginning to become clearer. Some of these showed themselves in the Budget debate held in March, when the governing Democratic Labour Party (DLP) had to indicate how it would come to terms with the current recession affecting the country and accumulated debt in the face of sluggish economic growth. The fact of the matter is that since the DLP’s return to office, the Barbados economy has been strongly affected by global recessionary conditions reflected in a contraction of economic growth in 2009 of 4.7%, and 0.2% in 2010, and an unemployment level sticking at around 10%.
In those conditions, the hope that was held out by the DLP’s sweeping electoral victory (20 seats to 10 for the BLP) has not materialised. This situation has not been helped by the early death of the party’s dynamic new leader, David Thompson, and then by the cloud of the CLICO disaster which continues to linger over the country, with its continuing effect of loss of income and savings by Barbadian policyholders. In addition, a certain distrust of the government has begun to develop as a result of increasing indications, bolstered by a recent report, of apparently corrupt practices engaged in by the CLICO leadership which had had close connections to David Thompson, both in his situation as a legal practitioner and as leader of the DLP which allegedly received strong financial support from CLICO. A continuing silence on the part of the new Prime Minister, Freundel Stuart, has not helped, giving as it has, an impression of inability to decide how to treat the CLICO affair.
That appearance of indecision has worsened, given what appears to the Barbadian public as an unwillingness of the Prime Minister to speak out on public affairs generally, his persona being much different from the flamboyance of David Thompson. Hopes that the Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, successor in that post to Thompson, and previously known for an aggressive speaking stance, would balance the reticence of Stuart, have also not materialised. For the general assessment of his recent (March) Budget presentation seems to have been than of not having come to grips with both the fiscal problems and the economic growth possibilities of the economy.
The consequence of this situation of apparent virtual economic and political stasis has been a raising of the hopes of the BLP leadership resumed, after a short hiatus in the aftermath of the party’s 2008 defeat, by former Prime Minister Owen Arthur. Arthur’s well known command of economic analysis has placed a further shadow over Stuart, his attacks extending beyond the government, in some instances, to the Barbados Central Bank’s analyses and recommendations. Sensing the possibility of victory in the elections due by January 2013, Arthur has also hastened to induce a return to cooperation in party affairs by Mia Mottley, from whom he snatched the leadership in the last party elections, sending her into a sulking position for a while. Mottley, a formidable speaker in her own right, has apparently come to the conclusion that in the context of continuing sluggish economic growth, public opinion is inclined to accept that Arthur, with a record of success in managing the economy prior to the global meltdown of 2007-08, is better fitted to take over the government than herself. So there now seems likely to be a period of a sense of mutual indispensability, and therefore tolerance and cooperation between the two, Mottley having shown her own electoral mettle in gaining 67% of the vote in her constituency in the last general elections.
It seems too, that the Barbadian public may have a sense that the government has not been handling its external relations, particularly regional relations, in a manner that would enhance the country’s reputation. The central issue would appear to be that of the government’s handling of the Caribbean immigration issue, which was a major one in the 2008 general elections, astutely exploited by David Thompson. Stuart would appear not to have been able to convince regional opinion that the government is adequately handling the matter, as in the case, for example, of a Jamaican woman alleging inhumane treatment at the Barbados airport now reaching the Caribbean Court of Justice.
In addition, a certain discontent has been mounting in the OECS countries over the CLICO affair. Sentiments expressed by some OECS prime ministers have indicated that the Barbados government is dragging its feet in cooperating with their governments in dealing with OECS citizens affected by the collapse of the company and allied companies. The allegation would appear to be that of insensitivity on the part of the Barbados government, leaving an impression of OECS governments’ weakness in coping with the issue.
In terms of its own prospects in the elections of 2013, the government must be banking on the possibility of a resumption of growth in the tourism industry in the light of the possible resumption of economic growth in North America, though this could well be counterbalanced by the continuing sluggishness of the British economy when this is combined with the effects of the Air Passenger Duty (tax), obviously discriminatory vis-à-vis passengers wishing to travel from the UK to the US.
In the light of all of this, the government must be anticipating a struggle to return to office after the elections, and still pondering what strategy might advance its situation. The Democratic Labour Party rank and file is unlikely to be persuaded about the benefits of a change of leadership at this time, particularly as the apparent next in line, Minister of Finance Sinckler, has not shown himself to be much more of a match than Stuart, for Owen Arthur.