By SANKA PRICE
ON THE face of it, there seems no connection between the ascent of Kamla Persad-Bissessar as Trinidad and Tobago’s first female prime minister, and the Christopher “Dudus” Coke affair in Jamaica, together with the sad illness of Prime Minister David Thompson in Barbados.
But there is a connection. And it is that the political challenges triggered by the Dudus affair and Thompson’s illness could lead to changes in governments in Jamaica and Barbados within the next three years that could usher in two more female prime ministers.
If that occurs, the English-speaking Caribbean would set the record for the most female leaders of governments in a single geopolitical region at the same time.
What, you may ask, is the basis for making such a bold assertion?
Simply put, unless the political environment undergoes a dramatic transformation between now and then, Jamaica’s next election will be Portia Simpson-Miller’s to lose. In the wake of the Dudus affair, Prime Minister Bruce Golding and his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) now face an enormous uphill battle in regaining the credibility and public trust needed to win another term in office. So a woman could soon be back in the Prime Minister’s office in Jamaica.
In the case of Barbados, Thompson’s illness is taking a toll on the fortunes of the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP). To date, the Barbadian public has been provided with very little information about their Prime Minister’s condition. How ill is he? How long will he need treatment? How will his treatment affect his ability to function as prime minister? These are all questions in search of answers.
The potential impact of Thompson’s condition on his party’s political health and fortunes over the next 36 months is not easy to gauge. Sometimes the personal challenges of a leader trigger a wave of public sympathy, sometimes they trigger a loss of public confidence. Whichever way the public’s response blows for Thompson and his party, one thing is certain: there is political opportunity here for Mia Mottley and the Opposition BLP who might fancy their chances of returning to office under the leadership of Barbados’ first female prime minister.
The evolving gender dynamics is just one element of the general transformation now taking place across the political landscape of the Caribbean. A key aspect of the change involves the electorate itself. Compared to previous generations, today’s electorate is better educated, more widely-travelled, and able to enjoy far greater access to a broad range of information.
The era of paternalistic politics ushered in after independence is now giving way to the management brand of politics. Old ‘til I dead’ loyalties are being replaced by demands for effective leadership and good governance. Across the region, political parties are coming more and more to look like each other with very little to set them apart, ideologically.
This leveling-out of the ideological field allows the electorate to move easily from one party to the next. Freed from the bonds of ideology, people are increasingly willing to vote- or abstain- according to their conscience rather than to maintain traditional or familial party support.
All of these elements and more were at work in the victory by Persad-Bissessar. Her triumph was more than a vote against the real and perceived excesses and arrogance of the Patrick Manning administration. It was a cry from Trinbagonians for better management of the nation’s resources on behalf of the wider population.
And though Persad-Bissessar’s victory was a statistical triumph in the making – based on the 2007 general election results when her United National Congress (UNC) and Dr Winston Dookeran’s Congress of the People (COP) attracted more voters combined than the then victorious Peoples’ National Movement (PNM) – the fact that her five-party People’s Partnership did not erode the solid PNM base suggests that many of the latter’s sympathisers abstained from voting.
Though the PP did well in garnering 59.81 per cent of the electorate as compared to the PNM’s 39.5 per cent, analysis of the voting patterns suggests the existence of a swing vote that is capable of keeping every government on its toes and the hopes of every opposition alive.
This question of leadership and the need for the public to be able to trust their leaders will be major factors working against Golding in Jamaica whenever the election bell is rung there.
Golding came to power on a reform platform. People wanted change that they could believe in and he pledged to give them that. He promised to be different, to break the link between criminality and politics, as well as to effectively disassemble the garrison communities.
The Jamaica Prime Minister was therefore seen by many as the problem-solver so sorely needed by their beleaguered country, crippled with severe social and economic challenges and high criminality.
The ‘Dudus’ episode has severely undermined his image as a man who could tackle Jamaica’s big problems.
Because of this factor alone, it will be difficult for the JLP to avoid becoming a one-term government. The likelihood of such a result will be further increased by the lack of tangible improvement in the lives of the average Jamaican during the party’s tenure, as the effects of the global recession continue to bite.
Leadership will also be a decisive factor in the next poll in Barbados, but for totally different reasons. When Barbadians wonder whether their Prime Minister is strong enough for the job, they’re thinking about his health. In his most recent cameo appearance at the launch of a major housing project in the north of the country, it was evident that he had lost considerable weight.
The reality for the ruling DLP is that Thompson remains their best asset for re-election as the person with the “best package of qualities” expected in a leader. He commands respect among friends and foes for his intellect and political savvy; for investors he presents a level-headed approach to doing business; his family life is exemplary; there is no hint of corruption surrounding him; and he is well liked by many Barbadians.
With no easily discernible alternative to Thompson in the DLP’s frontline, the ruling party will have a task on its hands convincing the electorate if his health does not permit full participation in the next general election.
So, within three years, when general elections are constitutionally due in Jamaica and Barbados, it is not beyond the realm of possibility for two more women to ascend to the highest political offices in their respective lands. In fact, one might even say they are odds-on favourites to win.