In less than a year, the mandate of the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) will expire and Prime Minister Freundel Stuart will have to call a general election, as required by the Constitution, to give Barbadians an opportunity to decide whether they wish to stay with his administration for a further five years or go with an alternative.
The past four years and a half, following the last general election in February 2013, have not been the best of times for the two-term DLP administration even though it managed to defy initial predictions that it was unlikely to survive the full term. Besides having to contend with a smaller than usual parliamentary majority of just two seats that left hardly any comfortable room to manoeuvre, the incumbent has also had to grapple with serious economic challenges.
While some of these challenges were influenced by external factors due to the openness of the island’s economy, others were clearly of domestic origin which some critics have linked to wrong policy choices. From comments in the various media fora, whether the widely-listened-to talk shows on radio, or on-line feedback from readers to news items published by Barbados TODAY, it is fair to say that a considerable number of Barbadians appear to be generally unhappy with the incumbent DLP over how it has managed the affairs of the country, especially in relation to the economy.
With Barbadians generally of the view that they are worse off today than four and a half years ago, Prime Minister Stuart and Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler have borne the brunt of public criticism. It is against this backdrop that Mr Sinckler will tomorrow afternoon present what is likely to be the DLP administration’s last Financial Statement and Budgetary Proposals before the House of Assembly is dissolved in preparation for the next general election.
The uppermost question on everyone’s mind is what is he likely to do in an election year? As no government relishes the thought of losing office, especially in the Caribbean where life in opposition can be particularly tough, the temptation naturally may be great for the ruling DLP to attempt in some way to repair its strained relationship with the electorate by using the Budget as a vehicle for dispensing a few goodies. Such would be nothing new in the historical context of our politics.
With Barbadians often described as having short memories, pre-election goodies, whether in the form of tax relief or higher Government spending to inject more money into the economy, can have the favourable effect of creating a “feel-good” factor among the electorate. However, with a still worrisome fiscal deficit that needs additional attention, it seems Mr Sinckler’s hands are tied even if the temptation is there to pursue this route. Pre-election goodies, though, quite often come with a heavy price to be paid later.
As a research-based article in an International Monetary Fund (IMF) publication pointed out some time ago, “the pre-election excess can be followed by a post-election hangover. Governments often have to go on an austerity plan to offset their free-spending pre-election policies. This politically generated boom-bust cycle can hurt long-term economic growth and stability.”
The article, based on a study of pre-election trends in low-income countries, observed: “As part of their re-election effort, incumbents can manipulate economic policy instruments. Among other things, they raise public spending and run budget deficits to increase overall demand and create jobs (even on a temporary basis)—and boost their election prospects.”
Given the evidence and the risks associated with pre-election giveaways, especially if the country’s circumstances means they cannot be afforded, it stands to reason that the national interests should always come before the ruling party’s interests. Therefore, the best that is required of a Minister of Finance is to do what is best for the country. Considering the national circumstances, the critical question at this time, though, is ‘how much more austerity can Barbadians take?’
Austerity has been a fact of life from almost immediately after the last general election during which, the evidence suggests, Barbadians were not given the full picture in relation to the true state of the economy. Mr Sinckler, therefore, is walking a tightrope as he gets ready to unveil what the DLP Government has in store. His task, without doubt, is not an easy one.
Meanwhile, all Barbadians can do as they anxiously await tomorrow afternoon’s presentation, is to pray and hope for the best, not only for themselves, but also for the future of the country.