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Political anxieties in Caricom

Rickey Singh

Sunday, December 30, 2012    

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POLITICAL anxieties seem to be the name of the game, for different reasons, in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and at least four other Caricom member states — Guyana, Barbados, Grenada, and St Kitts and Nevis.

Here in Jamaica it has much to do with the outcome of the surprisingly long time it is taking for the People's National Party Administration and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reach an accord, considering the rise and fall of expectations during the final year of the one-term Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government.

Jamaican politicians, like their counterparts elsewhere in our Caribbean Community, should be sufficiently informed by now, whatever their ideology or political philosophy, not to take too much for granted in bargaining with the IMF, that historical pillar of international capitalism.

Nor, for that matter, to reveal surprises when investment rating agencies like Moody's and Standard and Poor's suddenly come forward with their varying degrees of 'downgrade' ratings. These, as we know, could rock confidence in reputable regional institutions like the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), as well as in a once much-praised managed economy as that of Barbados.

Within weeks of Christmas 2012, the CDB was left to cope with another "adjustment" rating. While not damaging, it was to further diminish the CDB's much-heralded and long-sustained triple-A status.

For its part, the Barbados Government of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart was to suffer a serious blow — ahead of a soon to be announced new general election — with a second "junk" status credit rating on December 21. This time it came from Moody's Investors Service, the Government having been compelled to respond to a similar rating a few months earlier by Standard and Poor's.

While the IMF continues to test the patience, competence and integrity of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's Administration in Kingston, the People's National Movement parliamentary Opposition in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as some trade unions, seem bent on extending their confrontation with the People's Partnership Government of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar in Port-of-Spain, with a mix of controversial legislation, fiscal and economic policies.

No 'sleep loss'

However, given their substantial parliamentary majorities, neither the PNP Administration in Kingston, nor that of the PPG's in Port-of-Spain has cause to lose sleep over a serious threat to constitutional survival.

Curiously, the same is true for the People's Progressive Party Administration in Guyana, despite the reality of having to cope with the challenges — for the first time — of a parliamentary majority of one from an Opposition coalition that accounts for 33 of the 65-member House of Assembly.

The fundamental difference has to do with the Guyana constitution and the electoral system of proportional representation that together help to explain the executive powers of the head of state (currently the PPP's Donald Ramotar). The president can, constitutionally, withhold signing on to any legislation passed in Parliament with the Opposition's one-vote majority.

He can also opt not to act on an approved motion from the Opposition, as happened recently when the Assembly passed, by a majority of one vote, a no-confidence motion against the minister of home affairs, Clement Rohee.

The Government has since moved, via its attorney general, to the country's High Court for rulings on decisions by both the speaker of Parliament and actions by the Opposition.

Elsewhere in Caricom, political anxieties have to do with both scheduled and likely snap polls within the first quarter of 2013. These would be in Barbados, Grenada, and St Kitts and Nevis.

Focus on Barbados

The immediate focus of attention is on Barbados where the big question is over whether the voters there are ready to end a historical pattern of giving an incumbent party no less than two consecutive terms.

Leader of the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP), Owen Arthur, a former three-term prime minister and respected economist, is showing a brave face in offering examples of alternatives in fiscal management policies to that being pursued by Prime Minister Stuart's first-term Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Administration.

Put that down to good, competitive political strategies with eyes glued to the coming elections, the date of which could well be announced by the prime minister within a week.

The reality is that at this stage, actual changes in fiscal policies and management of vital revenue-earning sectors, such as the tourism industry, would simply have to await the outcome of the coming elections.

And that's the rub! In this Caricom member state, which has traditionally given the two dominant parliamentary parties — DLP and BLP — no less than two consecutive terms, there can be no certainty at this time that the already identified electorate for 2013 would break the pattern to restrict the incumbent to just one term.

The guessing game becomes even more difficult when the incumbent party heading into the coming elections happens to be that with the leadership imprint of the nation's 'Father of Independence' and National Hero — Errol Walton Barrow, who is also one of the architects of Caricom. They fondly referred to him in life as the 'Dipper' and still do so today — some 25 years after his passing.

Hence, the big question of immediate relevance is whether, for the first time, voters would restrict the party of 'Dipper' Barrow to just one term, because of a combination of economic, political and personality factors during the Dems' current administration, first headed by the late Prime Minister David Thompson, and then continued, with his sudden passing, by his deputy Stuart?

Time will tell; and we do not have much time left to get the answer with a three-week spell of campaigning that could end, significantly, some say fortuitously, with a likely parliamentary election slated for Monday, January 21, 2013 — coinciding with Errol Barrow Day.

If this scenario proves correct, I can well hear the clamour from the Dems' camp to voters: "Cast one for the Dipper". But will those votes be enough for victory?

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