Voting in general elections yesterday amidst generally overcast conditions and occasional heavy showers, St Lucians favourably responded to a call for change from the opposition United Workers Party (UWP), handing it a comfortable 11-6 seat parliamentary majority and a clear mandate to manage the island’s affairs over the next five years.
Led in an election for the first time by Allen Chastanet, a former tourism minister, hotelier and airline executive who comes from a wealthy family with business interests in hotels, supermarkets and at one time shipping, the UWP campaigned on a promise of “building a prosperous and progressive St Lucia for the benefit of all”.
Against the backdrop of a sluggish economy over the last five years that presented financial and other challenges for a majority of the population, the message clearly resonated with voters. The findings of a public opinion poll, conducted by the Barbados-based research organization, CADRES, and released during the short two-week campaign, identified unemployment and the economy as the top two public concerns.
Yesterday’s win represents a major comeback for the UWP which, ironically, was sent packing by voters just five years ago amid charges of corruption, incompetence and weak leadership. Following the undermining effects of that experience on public confidence, the St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) of outgoing Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony, which too had been voted out five years earlier after serving two terms, was re-embraced.
A definite trend therefore seems to be emerging where voters are expecting quick results in terms of noticeable improvements in their standard of living. They also seem increasingly impatient and reluctant to stick with any government which cannot demonstrate that it has made a real difference, based on their definition, within five years. It plausibly explains why the island has had two consecutive one-term governments in the last ten years.
Despite the euphoria and celebration which usually accompanies the election of every new government in the Caribbean, this reality must be most sobering for Mr Chastanet who took the oath of office as prime minister this afternoon. Having promised much, he ought to be fully aware that public expectations are high and that he has to deliver or his government is likely to suffer the same fate as its predecessors.
All eyes, therefore, are going to be on Mr Chastanet’s performance. Once the conditions are favourable, winning an election is the perhaps the easiest feat for any political party to accomplish. However, the real test comes following the customary honeymoon period when it is time to translate promise into performance to the general satisfaction of the populace. This, unfortunately, is where many ruling parties in the Caribbean have fallen down in recent years.
To a large extent, they have only themselves to blame. Most have opted to embrace a deceptive form of election campaigning in which they present themselves as ‘saviours of the people’ and paint a picture of creating blissful earthly paradises flowing with milk and honey. As a result, public expectations are raised beyond reasonable levels.
Which prompts us to ask the question: After winning, what really is next? Sometimes it is better for a party to lose and maintain its integrity and credibility than to win at all costs, fail to deliver and face the wrath of the general populace. Little wonder there exists a growing number of disenchanted voters across the Caribbean who hold very dim views of politicians and are opting out of the electoral process.
Mr Chastanet should not overlook these issues as he assumes office. As far as St Lucian voters are concerned, among their first expectations is an almost immediate reduction of the 15 per cent Value Added Tax, as promised followed by its eventual removal.
The outgoing SLP administration contended such a move would deprive the Government of a significant source of revenue. Pressed to identify what would be the replacement, the UWP would only say “creative” approaches would be taken. Time will reveal what these approaches will be. Former Prime Minister Stephenson King, one of the 11 elected UWP MPs, was also reportedly against the move.
Of course, St Lucians are also going to be looking for jobs in short order but higher levels of employment can only come over time from consistently high levels of economic growth. An interesting five years therefore lie ahead for the new UWP administration. Ultimately, the real test of its performance is if St Lucians can generally say at the end of this period “Yes, my life is certainly better today than it was five years ago.”
If that is the verdict, then the Chastanet government most certainly would have passed the test. If the answer is no, then its fate would be pretty much sealed.