As has been widely reported, on last Wednesday, December 9, the electorate in St Vincent & the Grenadines made the identical choice to that which they made five years ago, and indeed since 2001, as they returned Dr Ralph Gonsalves and his Unity Labour Party (ULP) to office with eight of the fifteen electoral seats in the House of Assembly. And in consequence, Mr Arnhim Eustace and his New Democratic Party NDP) suffered a fourth defeat in as many elections.
The election was of substantial interest to the people of Caricom given the personality of Dr Gonsalves as not simply, as some would say, a small island leader, but as one who has insisted, over the many years that his party has held the government, on making his opinion on Caribbean matters widely known to the Region, and impressing himself on the conduct of matters particularly within the Caribbean Community.
That the election was narrow says a lot about the ability of the two parties to sustain their support over a substantial number of years, this suggesting that the different sides of the electorate have largely remained frozen in their choices of parties over the four elections that Dr Gonsalves has contested as leader of the ULP. And the indications are, given that the onus has been on Mr Eustace to break the Gonsalves spell as against Gonsalves having to maintain his party’s support, that calls are likely now to be made for Eustace to give way to a new leadership.
This is particularly so since, as will have been widely commented on, Dr Gonsalves’s son, former Senator and Minister of Foreign Affairs Camillo Gonsalves, has now entered the House as an elected member, and rumour is rife that he is likely to step forward, or be put forward, as the next leader of the ULP, and therefore the contender for the prime ministership when the next general elections are called.
St Vincent and the Grenadines has, under Ralph Gonsalves’ leadership over the last many years, had a wider Caribbean visibility than in the previous years of NDP leadership under former Prime Minister James Mitchell. This has been not only because at the time of his entering the electoral fray, he did so as having a political and intellectual reputation in the wider Caribbean beyond St Vincent. And indeed beyond that, he had already attained a reputation as one of the intellectual radicals coming out of the University of the West Indies, his early claim to regional political fame being because he was made to leave Barbados during the tenure of office of the Barbados Labour Party government there, the party then being led by Prime Minister Tom Adams.
Gonsalves in office, in some degree, carried over the reputation as a radical by seeking to stretch the limits of his country’s foreign policy activity beyond the traditional attachments to governments of the Western world, seeking then to attract much needed largesse from, for example, the government of Muammar Gaddafi, and later, nearer home, the regime of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
But his substantial external attention has been to focus, almost against the odds it would seem, on the importance of consolidating the Caricom integration movement, doing so partly from the stance of seeking to push the OECS integration movement further along the road of creating what is referred to as a single economic and political space.
But a limitation on his exertions would appear to stem from the limited base of St Vincent and the Grenadines itself, experiencing in the last two decades or so, like the other Windward Islands of the OECS, the sudden and persistent loss of the United Kingdom as the substantial market for his country’s banana production and that of the other Windward Islands of the OECS. St Vincent has largely had to depend on income from the tourism industry, focused in large measure on the Grenadines Islands section of his country, a grouping largely dominated by the NDP, and more specifically, by Sir James Mitchell.
It is not unlikely that the tenure of office which Prime Minister Gonsalves has now commenced is likely to be his last. In that event, it is already being widely speculated that his now elected son will be his successor. In the case of the NDP, Arnhim Eustace was widely held to be the successor to Mitchell, having served as his Director of Finance in the latter part of Mitchell’s prime ministership. But the indications are that the NDP ran the elections under Eustace without the participation of Mitchell, who had created the party and served for a long period as its political leader.
That circumstance is itself indicator of yet another Gonsalves’ victory, once it is understood that in our Caribbean parts of the world, as in others no doubt, the presence or absence of a preceding, long-standing leader, particularly a founder of a party, can be the decisive factor in the success, or lack of it, for that party.
In the case of St Vincent & the Grenadines, there seems to be a sense ‒ and apparently it would hardly be unlikely ‒ that the followers of the NDP, feeling the absence of Sir James over a number of elections and in the recent formal business, while seeing him still fit for political activity, may soon seek his assistance in a reorganization of the NDP.
And in that case too, it would apparently not be surprising if, after four terms of office, Ralph Gonsalves pursues an expected change in his own Unity Labour Party.