Election results in four Caribbean jurisdictions partly show the fallacy of assuming that incumbency presupposes an election advantage. In the Bahamas, the ruling Perry Christie led left-of-center Progressive Liberal Party suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Hubert Minnis led center-right Free National Movement (FNM) on May 10, 2017. The FNM, which had held just nine seats in the previous parliament, wrestled 25 of the 29 seats held by the PLP in what was considered a whitewashing of the beleaguered government facing a declining economy, serious corruption allegations and failed constitutional referendum. It is worth noting that the two traditional political parties faced a slew of smaller parties in the elections. But like Barbados and elsewhere in the Caribbean, they failed to win seats, with nothing close to a strong showing, even while losing every contest. There was to be no upending of the two-party system.
In Grenada, the ruling NNP was returned to power with not a scrape to its fortress, and in Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Brown easily defeated the opposition UPP. In Barbados, well, the writing was on the wall and so it was unsurprising that the DLP was defeated by the BLP. What was shocking was the clean sweep.
There was clearly a resounding vote of confidence by the electorate in the direction taken by the Prime Ministers of Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda. In these two countries, the economy seems to be on an upward trajectory. But political issues surrounding the defeat in the referendum in Grenada, and the ownership of lands in Barbuda, and conflict with a major investor in Antigua were troubling signs preceding the elections.
Where the Bahamas was concerned, repeated allegations of corruption, economic difficulties, leadership struggles within the ruling PLP, and a failed referendum, all conspired to ensure the massive defeat of the incumbents at the hands of the FNM under new leadership.
In Barbados, so much has been said of the failing economy, ineptitude of the administration, deteriorating social services, increased taxation, corruption, arrogance and contempt, and the seeming inability to interpret the need for change, that little more needs to be said here. But it is also as important to focus on the work done by the Barbados Labour Party which managed its selection process early and mounted an effective campaign that one could be forgiven if the assumption was made that it was the ruling political party. Importantly also was the fact that the DLP was led by an individual who appeared to be uncomfortable with the media. He is quite simply not media natural, and this has resulted in a negative image of his leadership because many saw him as eschewing national visibility when he ought to have embraced it. So voters swept the DLP out of office on the mounting wave of discontent.
I still have major difficulty in comprehending why the elections were called so late. The DLP was entering the 2018 elections as the underdog and it was impossible to glean any political opportunities that a late poll would offer. But, in the final analysis, although the decision seemed ill-conceived, it was the Prime Minister’s constitutional right, and he exercised that right, much to the detriment of his entire party.
I believe that it is easy to take shortcuts especially as most people simply do not have the time or the inclination to invest in assessing the merits of differing policies. The DLP appeared to have been acutely conscious of this, and the overall negative perception of their various policies, and so it was relatively easy for them to engage in personal attacks on Mottley. Had that ill-conceived campaign strategy been successful (and it just could not be, given the existing electoral environment), it would have been a function of the shortcuts that we take. Given the visibility of the political leaders (whether or not they wish it to be so), and the fact that they are often seen as the embodiment of their parties, evaluating their leadership ability to determine how we vote is one of our tendencies. So the DLP made the elections about Mia Mottley when they ought to have made it about policies and defending their track record or the ability to engage in something different to bring relief to the country. They could not.
We know that as a general rule, the primary advantage of incumbents is to be located in the availability of financial resources, familiarity, access to the media and staff resources. Some of these resources, namely financial and staff resources, can be used quite effectively to solve problems of the constituency and consequently maintain recognition and popularity. Financial and staff resources also help candidates with the use of more sophisticated methods of communication such as new technology and accessing the media.
On the flip side, incumbency also carries with it severe disadvantages. This is because incumbents are viewed from the position of past decisions, which any opposition candidate and political party can exploit in the case of a negative election campaign. We are well aware that incumbents will be blamed for all the problems occurring in the economic, social, political, and other spheres even when some problems are sometimes beyond the power of the candidate to change. So the biggest problem for an incumbent administration is associated with the negative perceptions of the electorate of the performance of the government. And this can supersede and negate all the potential advantages of incumbency. Voters are more likely to blame the government for economic and social problems.
According to the responsibility hypothesis, voters hold governments responsible for the past performance of the economy. Consequently, if the economy is doing well, voters will approve of this and the popularity or election outcomes of the governing party will increase. Unemployment, high inflation and changes in disposable income are three of the most critical factors linked linearly to government defeat. Ultimately then, if the perception of the voter is that the economy is in bad shape, then this will translate into a vote against the incumbent party and candidates. And the Barbados economy was in a bad state.
It is also argued that time constraint is a critical issue confronting most incumbents as they are engaged in undertaking functions associated with the job of being a parliamentarian, and in our system, often a minister of government. These incumbents can also naturally be exposed to negative press attention. But the opposite is also true especially when there is control of the state media to great effect. And much has been said in recent months about the way in which the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) conducts its business. Many of us hoped that given the long-awaited declaration of Election Day for May 24, 2018, that some equity in the manner in which political stories, parties, and candidates were covered by the corporation would have manifested itself. My hopes were certainly not high, though broadcasting regulation during an election, makes allowance for political broadcasts between Nomination Day and Poll Day. I must confess that during the two weeks prior to the elections, the corporation made a valiant effort to showcase all the political parties and consequently it must be credited.
History is replete with the failures of political parties that assume, as a government, that their access to the State resources and a seemingly pliant populace would result in an election victory. This was yet another example.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)