PARTY POLITICS IN GRENADA: 2018 ELECTIONS AND BEYOND
Written by wendy grenade on March 17, 2018
As I entered the Marian Multi-purpose Centre to cast my vote on March 13, 2018, I reflected on the twists, turns, highs and lows of Grenadian politics. I observed the elderly with walkers and wheelchairs. Thirty-nine years ago, on March 13, 1979, most of them were labourers, domestic workers and store clerks. As was the case in most Caribbean countries in the pre-independence era, political mobilisation for electoral competition was influenced by sharp class divides. In Grenada, the majority working classes were loyal to the Grenada United Labour Party (GULP) led by Eric Gairy while the business elites and the remnants of the planter class supported the conservative Grenada National Party (GNP) led by Herbert Blaize. In the 1970s, under the leadership of Maurice Bishop, the New Jewel Movement (NJM) emerged as an ideological alternative to the two main political parties. Marian was a Gairyite stronghold and the overthrow of Gairy created fear and uncertainty for the working masses even as many of their children celebrated the dawn of the Grenada Revolution with hope and expectancy. That was almost forty years ago.
Given the passage of time and demographic shifts, as is the case with other communities in Grenada, Marian has changed. The grandchildren of plantation workers have now entered professional classes and are lawyers, teachers, public officers etc. (the two police officers on duty at the polling station were home-grown Marianers). Others in line were small business owners, female entrepreneurs, tradesmen and youth, (particularly young men) who are still struggling to find their way – hoping for a breakthrough, taking comfort in an occasional ‘spliff’ as they welcome ‘two days’’ work in a de-bushing programme or on a construction site. (I will return to this point in a future article when I will address the education system and the need for a holistic transformational youth strategy).
As this socially diverse group waited in line to cast our vote, I realised that politics in Grenada had come full circle. Unlike the pre-independence era, the two major political parties, the New National Party (NNP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) had no fundamental ideological differences between them and both parties were able to mobilise political support across the social divide. By early evening we learnt that the NNP, led by Dr. Keith Mitchell, had again won all fifteen parliamentary seats. Based on preliminary results, the NNP amassed 33,786 votes. The main opposition NDC, under the leadership of V. Nazim Burke, received 23,243 votes. However, given the distortions of the first-past-the-post system the NDC was unable to gain any parliamentary seat (I will return to this point in a later article).
The NNP must be given credit for such a decisive victory. The NDC must also be commended for putting up a good fight and the people of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique should be congratulated for peacefully exercising their right to vote. The question is, why did the NNP win a landslide victory three times? In 1999 and on two consecutive occasions in 2013 and 2018? In subsequent articles I will reflect on the 2018 general elections and offer insight into possible explanations. What does all this mean for governance and democracy and party politics beyond 2018?
First-past-the-post and Electoral Competition
There is an emerging narrative within and outside of Grenada (particularly on social media) which seems to suggest that Grenadians intentionally voted to engineer an electoral outcome that guaranteed the absence of a parliamentary opposition. As a Grenadian and a political scientist I reject that view. As is the case with every Commonwealth Caribbean country, except Guyana, Grenada’s electoral system is based on the first-past-the-post principle. This means that the candidate who amasses the most votes in each constituency wins the seat and the losing party or parties, has/have no representation at all.
It is clear that there are inherent distortions in this system which can lead to unjust electoral outcomes. A major point of contention is that a political party can win the popular vote but lose the elections overall, as was the case in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1998. Another distortion of the first-past-the-post system is that in some instances votes do not always translate proportionally to seats. For example, in the 1984 general elections in Grenada, the Herbert Blaize-led New National Party (NNP) gained just under sixty percent of the votes cast and won 14 seats, while Eric Gairy’s Grenada United Labour Party (GULP) was able to garner over 35 percent of the votes, winning only one parliamentary seat. In 2008, the Tillman Thomas led National Democratic Congress (NDC) obtained just about fifty percent of the votes cast and won eleven seats while the NNP received around forty-seven percent, capturing four seats. In 2013 and 2018 respectively, the NNP received less than sixty percent of the total votes cast, winning all 15 seats, while the NDC obtained approximately forty percent without gaining any parliamentary seats. This means in essence that approximately 22,377 and 23,250 citizens who voted for the NDC in 2013 and 2018 respectively had and continue to have no representation in the House of Representatives. If Grenada had a system of proportional representation, on both occasions the results may have been closer to 9-6 as opposed to 15-0.
There are instances, however, when the first-past-the-post system results in greater proportionality. For example, in the 2003 general elections, the NNP gained 46.6 percent of the votes cast and won eight seats, while the NDC received 44.10 percent with seven seats. On that occasion, seats obtained by the major political parties were proportional to votes cast.
What accounted for the 2003 outcome? The NDC had enhanced its appeal to the electorate by injecting new blood into its leadership. At the same time, the ruling NNP started to lose support among several sectors of the society, which culminated in its eventual defeat in 2008. However, the reality is, until there is electoral reform, political parties have to engage in electoral competition fully cognisant of the fact that from time to time votes and seats may be disproportionate.
What does all this mean? The winner-takes-all electoral system intensifies political competition. This provides an incentive for ruling parties to maximise the benefits of incumbency to hold on to power. At the same time, the fierce competition puts pressure on opposition parties to simultaneously: consolidate and expand their bases (often without access to resources); raise finances to support political campaigns (often in the absence of campaign finance legislation and excessive spending by incumbents); and present themselves to the electorate as an alternative government in waiting, hoping that the ruling party loses popularity.
In the absence of glaring ideological differences, in order for political parties in the Caribbean to enjoy electoral success they must be able to gain the confidence of the majority of the electorate and mobilise broad-based support across class, gender, generational and other divides. Clearly, in the Grenada case, the NNP has been relatively successful at mobilising majority support across a wide spectrum of the Grenadian society: the business class; working masses; the elderly; employed and unemployed youth; Christians and atheists, as well as sections of the middle and intellectual classes. This is one of the pivotal reasons why the NNP has emerged as a dominant political party.
Political leadership is absolutely critical. In the context of fierce electoral competition, the political leader must have national appeal, political presence and astute political skill. There must be no doubt that s/he has legitimacy within and outside the political party and commands the reins of the party. Even his detractors must accept that Dr. Keith Mitchell is a master craftsman politically. This is another reason why, under his leadership, the NNP has won by a landslide on three occasions. On the other hand, the dilemma for the NDC is that after almost every major defeat the political leader by conventional practice steps down. This means that a new leader has to regroup and the party has to find its political equilibrium all over again. The fact is, since its inception in 1987, the NDC has contested seven general elections under the leadership of five political leaders. On the contrary, since gaining the reins of the NNP in 1989, Dr. Mitchell became the founder-leader of that party which he has since maintained.
However, the NNP should be mindful that the 15-0 outcome is not an indication of total national support and its apparent political invincibility does not reflect the true reality. It must be noted that the NNP won all 15 seats but with less than 60 percent electoral support. Based on the preliminary estimated 73.6 percent voter turnout (leaving allowances for the fact that the voters’ list needs to be cleaned) there appears to be substantial discontent among the electorate as an estimated 19,000 of the registered voters did not have confidence in either the NNP or NDC and so did not vote.
In the interest of democracy, there is urgency to reform the electoral system to ensure fairer outcomes. In the meantime, the NNP-led government must govern in the interest of all. NNP supporters on the ground must know that Grenada belongs to all Grenadians, including the approximately 23,243 citizens who voted for the NDC and the over 19,000 who refused to vote for either party.
I suggest that a credible Democratic Watchdog be established in Grenada to keep the ruling party in check. People’s Parliaments should be introduced throughout the tri-island state where issues of national concern are debated. Beyond strengthening the Social Compact that currently exists, there is need for meaningful and sustained citizen engagement. Grenadians need to be active participants in their own governance. During the period of the People’s Revolutionary Government Zonal and Parish Councils were established to foster participatory democracy. Let’s revisit those models of community governance and refashion them for the current moment. As we approach 50 years as a sovereign state, Grenadians have another opportunity to show the world that we can fulfill the promise of independence to “aspire, build and advance as one people.”
Dr. Wendy C. Grenade is a Grenadian and a Senior Lecturer in Political Science, Department of Government, Sociology, Social Work and Psychology at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados