Election week in the Caribbean

bajan parliament

Two of the Caribbean’s more colorful island nations go to the polls this week in parliamentary elections — Grenada on Tuesday and Barbados on Thursday.grenada flagbarbados flag

In Grenada, prime minister Tillman Thomas is seeking reelection for his government, led by the National Democratic Congress (NDC), which holds 11 out of the 15 seats in the Grenadian House of Representatives, the lower house of Grenada’s bicameral parliament (the Senate, its upper house, is comprised of 13 members, 10 appointed by the government and three appointed by the opposition).

Meanwhile in Barbados, prime minister Freundel Stuart is seeking election in his own right after succeeding David Thompson as prime minister in October 2010 after Thompson died from pancreatic cancer.  Voters will choose 30 members of the House of Assembly, the lower house of Barbados’s parliament (pictured above).

There are some similarities between the two Caribbean countries beyond the timing of this week’s elections:

  • Both incumbent governments face uphill battles for reelection amid tough economic conditions throughout the Caribbean region — just last week, Jamaican prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller announced the country’s second debt swap plan in three years, designed to alleviate Jamaica’s debt crisis, where public debt stands at 140% of GDP.  Both Barbados and Grenada have been identified by the Caribbean Development Bank as having unsustainable debt levels.
  • In both countries, more right-wing opposition parties are led by former longtime, three-term prime ministers (Keith Mitchell in Grenada and Owen Arthur in Barbados).
  • Both feature stable political systems with a relatively entrenched two-party system, in each case with parties that are essentially moderate that lean only slightly left or right.
  • Both economies remain heavily dependent on tourism, and have absorbed the secondary shock of global economic downturn over the past five years, with each country having its own niche agricultural markets — Grenada is a leading exporter of nutmeg, mace and cocoa, while Barbados exports sugar and rum.
  • Both are former British colonies — Barbados, with nearly 275,000 residents, became independent in 1966, Grenada, with just around 110,000 residents, won independence in 1974 — that were both part of the short-lived West Indies Federation that existed from 1958 to 1962 that also included Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, among other islands.
  • Queen Elizabeth II still serves as head of state for both countries — in Barbados, the Queen’s appointed representative, the governor-general, is responsible for appointing all 21 members of the Senate, the upper house of the Barbadian parliament.
  • Both will be electing members of the lower house of parliament only, and in each case, election is determined on a first-past-the-post basis in single-member constituencies.

Control of Grenada’s government essentially switches between two major parties: the center-left NDC, founded in 1987, and the center-right New National Party (NNP), which was founded in 1984 and came to power after the American invasion that ousted the island’s communist government.  The two parties are fighting over a relatively small share of the electorate — the NNP won 48% to the NDC’s 46% in the 2003 election.  The NNP came to power in 2008, defeating Mitchell — who was first elected prime minister in 1995 — with 51% to just 48% for the NNP.

Polls show that Mitchell is likely, though not completely certain, to return as prime minister following the election and, if voters decide to punish the NDC with particular zeal, Thomas could well lose his St. Patrick East constituency in addition to the premiership.  Grenadian voters, who polls show are swinging towards Mitchell’s NNP, believe the country is on the wrong track by a 2-to-1 margin.

Thomas, in particular, has suffered from infighting from within the NDC, and his former foreign minister Karl Hood has now openly endorsed the NNP in the election.

Meanwhile, a new leftist alternative, the National United Front, launched in 2012 by former environment minister Glynis Roberts and other former NDC legislators expelled from the NDC last year, is running in three out of the 15 constituencies, and it could siphon enough votes from the NDC to return the NNP to power, adding to the NDC’s campaign difficulties.

As in Grenada, Barbadian politics is likewise a two-party affair but unlike Grenada, both the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and the governing Democratic Labour Party (DLP) date to before Barbados’s independence.

The BLP, founded in 1938 by Grantley Adams, a Barbadian prime minister in the 1950s would go on to become the first and only prime minister of the West Indies Federation, controlled Barbados’s government from 1976 to 1985 under prime minister Tom Adams and under Arthur from 1994 to 2008.

The DLP, founded in 1955 by some of the BLP’s more leftist members, controlled Barbados from 1966 to 1976 under prime minister Errol Barrow and briefly, again, from 1991 to 1994 before winning the 2008 elections.

The DLP currently controls 20 of the 30 seats in the House of Assembly, but as in Grenada, the margins of victory in recent elections are relatively narrow.  The ‘Dems’ won 53% to the BLP’s 46.5% in 2008, and the ‘Bees’ won 56% to the DLP’s 44% in 2003.

Arthur, who returned to politics in 2010 to lead the BLP once again, is a narrow favorite to return to power, according to polls, though his challenge remains more difficult than the Grenadian opposition.  If Arthur and the BLP triumph on Thursday, it will be because voters weary of economic decline were ready to return to a prime minister who’s viewed as having had a firm grasp on economic policy.  Stuart’s government has refused to accept either a bailout from the International Monetary Fund or devaluation of the Barbadian currency.

It’s a tough time for incumbents generally in the Caribbean.

Simpson-Miller returned to power after Jamaica’s December 2011 elections, when her center-left People’s National Party winning 53.2% of the vote and 42 seats to just 46.6% and 21 seats for the center-right Jamaica Labour Party.

In the even smaller St. Kitts and Nevis (50,000 citizens), also targeted by the CDB for its high debt level, longtime prime minister Denzil Douglass is facing pressure to call snap elections, where his left-leaning St. Kitts and Nevis Labour Party could face defeat for the first time since 1995.

Photo credit to Kevin Lees — Bridgetown, Barbados, February 2011. 

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