Prime Minister of Grenada Keith Mitchell will soon call an election that will see his governing New National Party (NNP) seek a second term following its election to office in 2013. The election date is to be called for a date of Prime Minister Mitchell’s choosing but is constitutionally required to occur by June 25, 2018 in the nation of 107,000 people.
With the conservative NNP having won all 15 seats in Grenada’s lower house, Mitchell’s promise in November that his party would “play very greedy” and prediction that his government could once again win it all, has set the stage for a high-stakes election against Senator Nazim Burke and Grenada’s other major party, the liberal National Democratic Congress (NDC).
The old and famous political adage ‘all politics is local’ surely rings true for Grenada. But, in this turbulent era of our globalised world, every Caribbean election will impact well beyond national borders.
Grenada right now
Having campaigned on a platform of ‘We will deliver’, Keith Mitchell won government in 2013 with the promise of bringing real change. It’s significant to note that Nazim Burke and the NDC will largely be unable to campaign in the same way.
Burke will not only need to make his party’s case for election, but also convince the electorate that the NDC learned from its previous mistakes in government that saw it suffer a resounding loss in the elections of 2013 under then-leader and prime minister Tillman Thomas.
Having served as the finance minister in Thomas’ government, Burke presided over a period of economic stagnation that, at its best, saw a growth of just 2.4% in 2013. Burke will struggle to make inroads against Mitchell’s economic narrative ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, especially as Mitchell’s government has delivered annual growth as high as 7.3% per year during its term.
The successful implementation of Mitchell’s Structural Adjustment Programme, alongside the praise his government has won from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for its economic reforms, means that Mitchell’s government can cite national and global praise for its achievements.
This notwithstanding, its record is not perfect. While Mitchell has led a period of strong growth in the tourism and construction sectors, the high debt-to-GDP ratio that Grenada holds has been a limiter on public spending. And, given that Hurricanes Irma and Maria so powerfully showed the vulnerability of a tourism industry to natural disaster, it can be said that the performance of government in this area is impressive but certainly not invincible.
Nonetheless, the strong performance of these private sectors, in tandem with the Mitchell government seeing a reduction in the unemployment rate from 33.5% in 2013 to 24%, means that, across the board, the Mitchell government has many reasons to anticipate its re-election. That’s exactly why this is such an unpredictable election for them.
What do these issues signify?
The upcoming election will not only tell a new chapter in the story of the Grenadian people, but show to what extent global political headwinds are blowing through our region. Whatever your view of Grenada’s government, it is undoubted that the Caribbean is not immune to these.
In fact, as the recent revelations within the Paradise Papers showed, by many measures our region is at the epicentre of global debates surrounding the growing rich-poor gap, government taxation, immigration and Citizenship by Investment Programmes (CIP) and a host of other global challenges that are each day playing out within our neighbourhood.
While Grenada has won praise for its handling of some of these issues – with the IMF calling Grenada’s CIP programme “the gold standard in the region for transparency” – its prominent economic performance will also come with the expectation of greater regional leadership in these areas.
On a local level, as CARICOM chairman, Mitchell has pushed for greater regional integration. The greater globalisation of our local economy, the rise of multinational challenges like climate change, the ‘taxation question’ of accommodation providers like Airbnb in the tourism sector, and the capacity for more rapid coordination and deployment of aid resources when natural disaster strikes, all confirm greater regional cooperation is no longer an option as opposed to a necessity.
In this regard, Mitchell’s work as CARICOM chairman should see him stand in good stead as a strong regional leader. Ultimately though, it’ll be in Grenada that his leadership is voted upon.
Where to go from here
Grenada’s government is not the only Caribbean nation set for elections in 2018, with Barbados and the US Virgin Islands mandated, and an early election in St. Vincent and the Grenadines long mooted. Even Cuba is set to undergo a change – albeit in a far less democratic process – that’ll nonetheless write a new chapter in Havana of a post-Castro era.
The elections of other nations notwithstanding, the NNP’s parliamentary majority will be subject to the same political dynamics that have recently seen many other constitutional monarchies around the world – from the UK to Canada to New Zealand – either have the sitting government booted from office or forced into a coalition and minority governance.
Simply put, in an era that has seen the old political convention ‘every first term government usually gets a second term’ crumble, the NDC will need to convince the Grenadian people they could have been governed better than by the NNP’s absolute majority. Even if they have a very strong record to run on, it is no guarantee.
The risk for the NNP is that many Grenadians may accept the outcome of another four years of its rule but put forward a ‘protest vote’ in the hope that it’ll shake things up in St George’s. That feeling is one that can have substantial and long-lasting consequences.
Global voters are punishing complacency
Elections in the UK and other nations around the world have consistently shown opinion polls are no longer reasonable predictors of outcome. After all, many Britons wished to remain in the EU but voted for Brexit as a protest vote. Post-Brexit data suggests over 1 million Britons regret their vote and would now vote differently.
The experience of Hillary Clinton is another example. While Donald Trump was recognised as a political phenomenon, and then astounded many by winning the Republican Party nomination, Clinton remained a resounding favourite going into the 2016 US presidential election. Just as it was held that Hillary Clinton’s ‘unlikeability’ factor hugely damaged her chance at victory, so, too, would the Mitchell government be tempting fate if it took a strong record in office to the people, with a healthy serving of arrogance.
On this basis, it’s notable that considerable personal animosity exists between Mitchell and Burke, highlighted by Burke’s commencement of defamation proceedings earlier this year, claiming that Mitchell had defamed him by alleging that Burke had not paid taxes in previous years.
In turn, Burke has sought to position Mitchell and his government as contemptuous of the Grenadian people, with “complete disregard to the constitution and basic laws”. He has also shown contrition for the in-fighting and mistakes that the Tillman Thomas government made when in office. This personal element heightens the chance of the unexpected.
With each side posturing, we see now a familiar global theme played out locally. There is the incumbent governing party calling itself the only safe choice, as we saw with Hillary Clinton in 2016. Then, there is the alternative; perhaps a bigger risk but also a change from business as usual. We know what happened with that narrative in the US.
Overall, the Mitchell government has a strong record, and strong prospects for re-election. The stability it has looked to provide to business, and the growth across the nation’s economy, is testament to this. As opposition is held to be where ‘defeated governments learn from mistakes, and new ones work to take shape’, many Grenadians will be wary of voting Burke and the NDP back in, just one term after the party lost office.
Nonetheless, it will be important that Mitchell and the NNP make a case for why their party should win another term, rather than doing a victory lap on their majority won back in 2013. Recent history shows that there’s nothing as dangerous for a government as going into an election as a huge favourite.