Dr Ralph Gonsalves, familiarly known as “De Comrade” to all and sundry in St Vincent and the Grenadines and across the region, has to be the happiest man today in Vincy Land. Sworn in late this afternoon for a fourth consecutive term as prime minister, the former Cave Hill-based University of the West Indies (UWI) political science lecturer has earned himself a unique place in Vincentian history.
Following a closely fought general election yesterday, Dr Gonsalves now has the rare distinction, which he shares with the late Dr Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago, as the second Commonwealth Caribbean political party leader to land at least four consecutive general election victories and secure four straight appointments to serve as prime minister. Dr Williams had five in all.
With little else to prove, De Comrade can look forward now to riding off into the sunset with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. In yesterday’s general election which was easily its toughest challenge since taking office for the first time in 2001, the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) retained the eight seats it held at the dissolution of Parliament and the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) took the remaining seven.
Voting trends in previous elections showing declining voter support for the ULP, suggested this election was the ULP’s to lose and the NDP’s to win. Politics, however, like the game of cricket, sometimes proves to be a game of glorious uncertainties. Today, the NDP claimed that it won a seat by seven votes that was declared last night for the ULP and made clear it intended to challenge the result. A recount today showed that the ULP candidate, new Deputy Prime Minister Sir Louis Straker, actually won by more votes.
Against this backdrop, NDP leader and former prime minister Arnhim Eustace has to be the unhappiest man in Vincy Land. Ironically, he too has secured a unique place for himself in Vincentian history. In contrast with De Comrade’s outstanding success, his record is one of recurring failure.
After emerging as political heir to former prime minister Sir James Mitchell and serving for five months as prime minister ahead of the 2001 general election, the former Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) economist has now led the once dominant NDP to four consecutive defeats.
Yesterday most likely was the final addition to the script for his political epitaph. With Eustace now 70 years old, the sun has pretty much set on his generally lacklustre political career. There were previous calls for him to step down as NDP leader, including from his former mentor-turned harsh critic Sir James, but he successfully fended them off. It is unlikely, however, that he will be able to survive this time around. More than ever now, he will be seen as a major liability. Political parties have a harsh way of dealing with leaders who are repeat losers.
It would be in Eustace’s interest, therefore, to seize the earliest available opportunity to make a dignified exit instead of possibly finding himself being unceremoniously tossed out, which often happens to leaders who stubbornly stick around after closing time. Such a move on his part would give the NDP a free hand to choose a new leader, restructure, rebuild and reposition itself for the future.
Losing is never easy for any political party, but especially so in the harsh political environment of the Caribbean.
Dr Gonsalves’ unquestionable status today as a colossus, which gives him at least a comparable ranking with predecessors Ebenezer Joshua, Milton Cato and Sir James Mitchell, stands in sharp contrast with his early days in politics when he struggled for acceptance. De Comrade, who was known as a fervent proponent of “scientific socialism” during his days at Cave Hill, returned home prematurely in the early 1980s after he incurred the wrath of Prime Minister Tom Adams, who opposed anything resembling communism.
As a rookie journalist with the Caribbean News Agency (CANA), St Vincent and the Grenadines was the first Caribbean country where I was dispatched in late 1981 on a political reporting assignment. As a result, I developed a special interest in Vincentian politics and became familiar with the leading personalities. Persons like the late Hudson Tannis, Milton Cato’s deputy prime minister who lived so close to Arnos Vale Airport, that it was always a challenge doing an interview in his patio because of loud noise from aircraft landing or taking off.
At the time, Sir James Mitchell was in opposition and a few years away from leading the NDP to victory for the first time in the 1984 general election. If my memory serves me correctly, he then used to drive around in an old Volkswagen Beetle.
My first encounter with De Comrade occurred around that time when he was leader of a small party called YOULIMO which was considered not mainstream, as the ULP is, but leftist. I would often find him with other comrades upstairs in a yellow building not far from the St George’s Anglican Cathedral.
At the time, few Vincentians imagined that he would eventually become prime minister. However, what De Comrade –– or Ralph as he was mostly called then –– always had going for him was his infectious charm. People naturally warmed to him, liked him as a person but had reservations about supporting him politically because he was considered a communist. The tragedy of Grenada was still fresh in people’s minds and served as a powerful reminder of what mainstream politicians then held up as “the evils of communism”.
It had to be the genius in Dr Gonsalves that made him realize that to be electable, he had to undergo a political image make-over and reposition himself more towards the centre of the political spectrum than on the left. He successfully did so. As the dominance of the Labour Party weakened following Milton Cato’s retirement and the NDP rode a crest of goodwill to supremacy under Mitchell, it was again Gonsalves’ genius that spotted an opportunity for a revitalization of the Labour Party through a merger with his YOULIMO. The result was the Unity Labour Party (ULP).
An elected parliamentarian since 1994, De Comrade made it clear during the campaign that this election would be his last. He is 69 years old now and presumably tired of fighting in the trenches. His son Camillo, who was a senator and served as foreign minister in the last administration, was successful in his first outing at the polls yesterday, taking the East St George seat.
The young Gonsalves, a journalist and also a lawyer like his dad, is widely seen as the heir apparent. The kind of responsibility he is given in the new administration will provide a clear indication of the grooming he will undergo in preparation for any eventual take-over.
There were some aspects of the campaign which I frown on as a certified political strategist. It relates to a new level of negativity and nastiness which has been steadily creeping into Caribbean election campaigning. Vincentians must be applauded for rejecting this form of political pollution which is an unwelcome foreign intrusion in our Caribbean civilization, to use one of De Comrade’s favourite terms.
The best chance of winning is always through a culturally relevant campaign.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist.