We see many nations the world over in a time of huge political turbulence. Last year saw the shock decision of the UK’s Brexit vote‚ and in the US the election of Donald Trump to the White House. This year has seen the trend continue, with the strength of far right candidates in French and German elections not only straining European unity but testing many political norms and conventions that have been pillars of liberal democracies in the post-war era.
Put simply, while today we’re more globally connected than ever from an economic perspective, many nations have seen their politics turn inwards and become more embittered with each election cycle. The Caribbean is not immune to this global trend and so, with the upcoming elections constitutionally required in Barbados before mid-2018, an overview of this trend in the nation is essential for business.
While Barbados is small in the global economy, with elections held only every five years, its capacity to change course is more limited than a nation that would see elections for its parliament in a shorter duration of every two or three years.
Short-term concerns for Barbadians are issues too familiar to most other nations‚ with jobs and growth being core themes. While Barbados’ unemployment rate at 9.8% is down from the high of 12.3% in 2014 – and way below the stratospheric heights 24.4% in 1993 – it still pales to the record low of 7.4% seen in 2007. It is here that a picture of Barbados’ wider challenges is illustrated, as achieving growth and rejuvenation over mere maintenance of existing business is an ongoing problem.
Like other nations in the region, growing free trade, reducing tariffs and seeking to build greater confidence surrounding its national economy – beset by high public debt and recent downgrades in its credit status – loom as key tasks for Barbados in its next five years. So, too, the continuing efforts in Barbados and beyond to address the challenge of Climate Change.
Further, while Barbados sees strong performance in its major sectors of tourism and banking, these sectors are not invulnerable.
As the world continues its growth into a more globalised economy, more of the world’s wealth and economic power shifts towards the Asian region, and even the rise of cryptocurrency signifying location may become less and less important to finance in the future; any expectation by politicians in the Barbados capital Bridgetown that it’ll be ‘business as usual’ within these sectors in years ahead will be tested.
PARLIAMENT AND PERSONAL POLITICS
Barbados achieved independence in 1966 with the former British colony becoming a constitutional monarchy on November 30th of that year. Since then it has carved a unique identity as a nation and, as seen via its participation in the establishment of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), has been a key voice of regional leadership and reform.
This progress has been aided by national stability‚ with 30 seats in parliament, and the two major parties, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and the Barbados Labour Party (BLP)‚ swapping tenures in government and opposition since independence.
With the current government holding a majority of one seat, this is an election that could see Prime Minister Freundel Stuart’s DLP re-elected or Opposition leader Mia Mottley’s BLP take power. As readers may deduce from the similar party names (not to mention their similar DLP and BLP shorthand), the differences between the two parties in the past were often held to be minor, and the business of government orderly‚ but many indicators show this election will be of a different ilk.
Accusations of poor economic administration by the Stuart government – with the country’s credit rating downgraded in September from CCC+ to CCC – in tandem with critique of its transparency in the management of the National Insurance Scheme, sit within a political climate that has accusations of personal corruption on the part of ministers, leading Cabinet member Chris Sinckler saying this will be the “nastiest campaign” ever. The opposition, in return, has accused the government of seeking to attack Mottley’s personal integrity and tarnish her character.
GLOBAL TRENDS, LOCAL IMPACT
At its core these battle lines show that Barbados is set to experience what other nations have already been through. Beyond the regular rough and tumble of a political campaign, there is a global problem with the confidence in government itself, being borne out in national elections. In this respect apathy for Bridgetown mirrors the trends seen in the election of Trump, and other political phenomenon elsewhere.
This trend is not only delivering non-traditional figures from outside politics, like Trump on the right, but leaders like French president Macron in the centre and, more widely, a spate of young leaders like Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern who seek to portray themselves as a new and non-traditional brand of politician.
THE ELECTION DATE
The Barbados experience speaks to a reality that politics in recent times has gone up a notch across many countries. It has never been a field for the faint of heart but one need only look at the harsh rhetoric and divisive debate in the Bahamas earlier this year to know Barbados’ campaign will certainly be turbulent.
By virtue of its small parliament and system of government, Barbados has no prospect of a Trump-like phenomenon occurring and a leader winning office‚ changing the nation overnight. There is a risk, though, that the wounds of this campaign, like the ones exposed in the US election of last year, will be opened and enhanced by a vicious campaign.
The exact date is not yet fixed but political history gives us some clues surrounding a potential date. In Barbados and similar countries where the prime minister has the capacity to call for an election (via request to the governor-general), choosing around Christmas or New Year’s Day is regarded as politically unwise. The Easter period is also unlikely for the same reason.
In turn, while it’s notable that Prime Minister Stuart broke with tradition and called the last election five years after this parliament first sat (something which, by convention, is not usually done), it is also not good for a government to be seen to ‘cling to power’, and wait until the last possible date for an election to occur, especially in such a fierce political climate.
The elections in 1991, 1999 and 2008 all occurred in January, with the 2013 election in February. So, sooner rather than later, and an early 2018 election, is likely for Bridgetown.
Accordingly, whether it is a PM to re-elect or a new opposition to win government, they’ll need to be mindful in the campaign that whoever wins office will have to run the country afterwards. A ‘divide and conquer’ approach may make for effective campaigning but can irritate the voting public, and runs the risk of destroying any capacity for a bipartisan approach post-election. All Barbados candidates will need to keep this in mind when the election date is announced.