Reflections on the Barbadian Election: The political leadership we need

By Roberta Clarke

Roberta Clarke is currently a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists. A shorter version of this article first appeared as a blog post on www.rootsandrighst.wordpress.com

 In making their decision about which party would form the next government, Barbadians kept their focus, almost with singular resolve, on how the country could be fixed, could be recovered from 10 years of inept government, narrow-mindedness and campaign attempts at populist manipulation. In so doing, they rejected misogyny and homophobic bigotry.

The Democratic Labour Party (DLP), once associated with social justice, has been judged incapable of managing the economy. The country is highly indebted, has little in foreign reserves and is close to economic collapse.  And without a reliable moral compass or a strong record of good administration to which it could speak, the DLP chose the low road over and over in its campaign.

In contrast, under the leadership of Mia Mottley, the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) ran a campaign that veered away from personal invective. They resisted the bacchanal at every turn and temptation. Is this maybe a singular experience in Caribbean political campaigns?

The DLP leadership spent their depleted political capital trying to focus the country’s interest on Mia’s love life. They did so because too many of them are macocious bigots, not just those who were vocal, but also those who remained silent and therefore complicit.  But they also did this, one must conclude, as some kind of strategy to distract from the outrage that we have about all the disturbing realities.

Notwithstanding sufficient advance warnings, the DLP administration failed to attend to the aging sewage pipes. And so, over the last year, sewage has been burbling up and breaching the main south coast road, an area heavily populated with residents and hotels. As stench filled the air, with mess flowing into the adjacent sea and fecal dust settling on the landscape, some businesses have suspended operations and tourists are staying away. This is hobbling the economy and is a threat to public health.

And so during its campaign the DLP sought to avoid questions of public maladministration with a prurient obsession with Mia Mottley, a strategy that backfired spectacularly and was such fodder for a mocking social media. They did so also to befuddle us away from thinking about the decline in public health delivery and the breakdown of public transportation. They did so to avoid admitting that beyond taxing Barbadians into the poor house and selling off assets, they did not have a plan for economic recovery and development. Candidates ranted on about ‘wickers’ and ‘bullers’ (offensive Bajanisms for lesbian and gay). And in an assault on Caribbean regionalism and the rule of law, in the last days of the campaign, Prime Ministerial incumbent and leader of the DLP Freundel Stuart vowed to withdraw from the Caribbean Court of Justice because of the Court’s ‘disrespect’ towards Barbados. This statement came hours after the CCJ ordered the Chief Elections Officer to register those Caribbean and Commonwealth persons resident in Barbados who are entitled to vote. 

Whilst the DLP flailed about crudely, releasing their manifesto only a few days before the elections (as if they were caught by surprise by an election date which they called) the BLP kept their focus on missions critical – how it intended to ease the economic burden on the poor and how it was going to adjust the debt to free funds for social spending and the encouragement of small businesses.

In the end, Barbadians, resident Caribbeaners and others entitled to vote, rejected the DLP completely. ‘Not one damn seat for dems’!

The atmosphere since election night has not been euphoric. But with the reserve we associate with Barbadians, there is a sense of relief that the result was the correct one and a pervading quiet satisfaction that those who had betrayed the people’s trust were laid low. In the discreet conversations, there is hope and the belief that Mia Mottley can bring a new kind of leadership to the country.

We need a leader who will motivate us all to pull together in the direction of self-esteem, authenticity, and conscious care for each other. We need a leader who has zero tolerance for breaches of integrity and who urges us by example, to be deeper thinking about the changes that have to be made to stabilize the society and economy for the next generation.

We need a leader who will steer her colleagues away from pomposity and distance from ‘we the people’. We need a leader who will deter her Cabinet from the lure of the literal and metaphoric cocktail party, from the things that get Caribbean politicians stuffed with superficiality and self-regard.

We need a leader who will hold herself and her colleagues accountable for fairness and decency in private and public life. We need them all to have a checklist of things to be done. We need them to DO. We need a leader who will embrace inclusion and diversity. Already the signs are positive in one regard. The Prime Minister has indicated that the Constitution will be amended to ensure that the Opposition is represented in the senate notwithstanding that they are not present in elected parliament. 

In Mia Mottley I think we have someone who can, if she stays the course and others join her on that course, inspire generations in ways we associate with Errol Barrow. It occurs to me now that she could be Errol Barrow’s true successor. We want and need a leader who will encourage us to really see our true individual and collective beauties; to remember all that we offer to the world, us Caribbean people with our joyousness, our cultural creativity, our open-mindedness, and our lessons from resisting oppression and discrimination.  She has that vision and all the capacities. And if her conduct on the campaign is indicative, Barbados may well see its political culture transformed.

The BLP may no doubt make compromises that discomfort us. Politics, the exercise of power, requires that contesting powers and interests are managed. But we must be made to understand what those interests are and how the government’s decisions take us forward progressively to peace, equality and development that benefits the many. Transparency is usually the first thing to go in governance as deals are made. And when transparency goes, we are down the precipice of the personalization of power and the failure of accountability. These are the landmines that are already laid in waiting for this government. Our Prime Minister with her experience in government knows all of this and much more.

In her first press statements, the Prime Minister has set the to-be-expected post-win tone of unity, committing herself and her government to being responsive and efficient.  Because she knows that we must all be prepared to participate in and understand the difficult fiscal adjustment decisions that lie ahead for this highly indebted country, she ordered the release of the IMF report, something that she called for earlier this year. So I am, like many, reassured and optimistic today but not naively so. Onwards Mia and team!  

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