By Earl Bousquet
The campaign for Saint Lucia’s general elections has just taken another turn, again demonstrating just how different the island’s 2021 national poll will be from all ten since independence and 18 since islanders first voted, under colonialism in 1951.
The Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) launched 15 candidates on Wednesday night, July 14; two short of the full slate of 17 candidates saying it was to tactically accommodate two independent candidates with stronger chances of winning two Castries seats.
The SLP leader Philip J. Pierre introduced the SLP’s new strategy during an online-launch ceremony, saying the party will not field candidates for Castries Central and Castries North, represented (respectively) by former prime minister Stephenson King and former United Workers Party (UWP) and Cabinet minister Richard Frederick, in two administrations between 2006 and 2021.
Pierre said the unprecedented move is to facilitate the two independent candidates’ stronger chances of winning, in the common drive to ensure prime minister Allen Chastanet and the UWP are not returned to office.
The campaign is indeed at fever-pitch and the parties are in full flight towards the July 26, polling day.
It’s already crystal-clear it’ll be an election like no other – and not only because it’s taking place under a lengthy ‘COVID National Emergency’ laden with restrictions and protocols that now also include agreed election protocols.
With the election less than a fortnight away and nomination day this Friday, party supporters last weekend brushed aside COVID protocols in campaign rallies and motorcades.
The infractions led to dire warnings by the island’s Chief Medical officer (CMO) and other leading health authorities the parties and supporters risked or may have opened the way for introducing a new fourth COVID wave through what some have already christened an ‘election variant’.
The warnings came Monday, July 12, from CMO Dr Sharon Belmar-George and Dr Merle Clarke, president of the Saint Lucia Medical and Dental Association (SLMDA).
With vaccination rates decreased and vaccine hesitancy on the rise, the doctors’ did get loud public support.
King, who’d served the UWP in parliament and Cabinet for four decades, also represents the large and populous Castries North constituency, which he’s repeatedly represented since first being elected – twice in 1987 – and only defeated once (in 1997).
The wily veteran political operator’s carefully-timed resignation dealt the UWP a hard blow and threw the ruling party into a virtual tailspin, forcing the leadership to quickly choose a replacement candidate – in just 24 hours.
Contrary to claims and expressed expectations, King did not join the SLP, which would certainly have risked him possibly alienating traditional party supporters and playing into the hands of those accusing him of ‘betraying the UWP’ by ‘crossing the floor’ and/or ‘changing sides.’ Instead, he opted to contest as an independent candidate (with an umbrella as his official symbol and blue as his campaign colour), loudly hoping other UWP candidates with similar grievances against Chastanet’s leadership will be encouraged to finally overcome their fears and follow his footsteps come nomination day.
King also hopes his move will open the way for enough potential candidates with like minds to join, under his umbrella, to form a new third party.
King said in a national address and several subsequent interviews that if re-elected, he’ll be prepared to work with any winning party – obviously except a UWP led by Chastanet. But his resignation did not surprise the many who knew of his long period of quiet discomfort with prime minister Chastanet and economic development minister Guy Joseph, in particular, who he accused of – among other things – undermining his efforts as a Cabinet minister during the last five years.
Chastanet, Joseph and King have indeed had a rocky relationship ever since Chastanet replaced King as UWP leader in 2015.
King has since accused Chastanet of virtually hijacking the UWP and quickly erasing the legacy of its late founder leader (and the island’s first prime minister) Sir John Compton, two of whose daughters fared very badly under both King and Chastanet’s governments in the almost 14 years since their dad died in 2007.
But King’s explanations of why he left the party he served for four decades have convinced many that he felt disrespected in office during the last five years – especially by colleagues who were relative newcomers and as the sitting Cabinet minister with the most experience in government.
He has also publicly accused them of taking decisions affecting his infrastructure ministry, without his knowledge and/or ignoring his expressed concerns and/or protestations.
King says he raised his concerns in a meeting convened for that purpose with Chastanet and deputy UWP leader and agriculture minister Ezekiel Joseph, but they were either ignored or not addressed, helping lead to his reluctant decision to depart. However, Chastanet denies King’s claim.
A re-election will open the way for King to make his next move regarding whichever party wins, including choosing between joining the next government’s Cabinet, becoming leader of an opposition alliance, or standing alone as an independent opposition member of parliament.
The UWP has moved quickly and overnight selected immediate past-president of the Saint Lucia Senate Jeannine Giraudy-McIntyre to hopefully convince enough UWP supporters to break with King and vote her in.
The new UWP candidate has been going house-to-house to present her face and touch hands, but given the size and population of the constituency, time may not be on her side.
Chastanet’s supporters still argue that if King felt like he said, he should have left the party much earlier. But King’s supporters say he banked heavily on ‘the element of surprise’ and deliberately delayed playing his trump card until the very last minute to disable his opponents’ ability to engage in damage control or repair.
A week after announcing his move, King has been methodically exposing what he presents as irregular actions by unnamed fellow Cabinet ministers. Most of the decisions and external interventions he referred to involved alleged undisguised arrangements by-passing the bidding process through ‘Cabinet Conclusions’ for ‘Direct Purchase Awards’, to facilitate directly awarding multi-million-dollar projects to preferred friendly contractors.
King’s resignation and subsequent statements have confirmed his objective was not to join the SLP; but to stand down and remove himself from the UWP’s current leadership orbit and place himself in direct contact with and availability to its base, the majority of who, like him, more quickly identify with Compton’s legacy than Chastanet’s.
Depending on the outcome of the election and the fact that the SLP and UWP have traditionally enjoyed near-equal voter support, King is also seen as positioning himself to be a possible King-Maker.
For example, should the two major parties win the same number of seats, he’ll also be in a position to negotiate even another prime ministership.
But King’s isn’t the only one with eyes on being a king-maker.
The Frederick factor
There’s also the Frederick factor, as the loquacious lawyer who’s been a veritable thorn in the UWP’s side for the past five years on Tuesday, July 13, indicated he’ll contest for the Castries Central seat as an ‘independent labour’ candidate.
Frederick has won the seat twice before – first as an independent and then as a UWP candidate – but his staple and very popular weekly TV program ‘Can I Help You’ has consistently advocated the UWP’s removal from office.
Frederick has been knocking loudly on the SLP’s door and explained that while he is not an SLP member, his red-coloured pamphlet indicating he’ll contest as ‘independent labour’ is meant to message to Castries Central voters that his thinking is more in league with the SLP.
Frederick’s campaign symbol is a hand; traced in red on a white background.
The new Green Party plans to contest with green as its colour and a cow as its symbol.
But given all the uncertainties inspired by non-traditional and non-conventional election tactics in the island’s first COVID-affected general elections, it’s only after Friday’s nominations that it’ll be clear who is running where, whether more independent candidates will register – and whether there’ll be any new surprise nominations.
Pierre said Wednesday night neither King nor Frederick has applied for membership of the SLP, but the party decided to facilitate their efforts in the interest of the wider need for embracing all candidates committed to the removal of Chastanet and the UWP on July 26.
The COVID effect
There’s also the COVID effect, with vaccination objectives still tied to achievement of the elusive herd immunity and very late arrangements made for purchasing vaccines – another source of controversy regarding the private purchasing arrangements, the amount of money and doses involved; and the alleged relationship(s) of key players in the company and the government.
With the levels of violations observed last weekend after protocols were subjected to festival-type gay abandon and the warnings by top health officials, the police force suspended all future island-wide motorcades and limited campaigning to constituencies. But the island still faces the distinct possibility of a real fourth COVID ‘wave’ that the UWP’s leadership will have encouraged and facilitated.
Caution to the wind
There were also reports of ‘hundred-dollar notes wrapped in yellow tee-shirts distributed last weekend during the well-attended Carnival-style jump-up island-wide ‘Yellow Motorcade’ as costumed party supporters threw caution to the wind.
At the SLP’s candidates’ launch Wednesday evening, Pierre also urged members to ‘Obey the protocols’ and ‘Reject violence!’
The UWP faces monumental tasks to turn the negative tide faced after Chastanet announced the election on July 5, with only 21 days’ notice – invoking a mixture of welcome and anger that built up a similar level of general public anxiety.
In a country of fewer than 200,000 people where nearly everyone feels he or she knows which party the other supports, parties’ strengths and support are usually measured by crowd-size and expressed public sentiments and voters largely tend to Wann ko’w dou ek chenn sigwe-ou…’ (‘Enjoy Yourself and Keep Your Secret!’), polls are not always reliably accurate –especially when the same pollsters are hired by contesting parties to provide similar competing services.
The SLP seems and sounds ahead in the usual traditional ‘on-the-ground readings, but also has to contend with the history that independent candidates and third parties can also fare well in these circumstances and benefit from protest votes.
UWP and SLP supporters traditionally support their respective parties through thick and thin, come hell or high water. So, parties and candidates hoping to win will also have to attract from the majority of the thousands of newly registered voters (most of who turned 18 since 2016), to avoid or counter losing protest votes.
And there’s also the effects of the potentially electorally costly ‘Stay Home’ factor on polling day…
The parties and candidates are spending their last hours gathering the numbers of supporters officially required to sign their nomination papers Friday, potential candidates with historical grouses have little time to decide if to follow King’s flow – and the SLP is benefitting from both the uncomfortable internal combustion and the untold effect of King’s timely resignation in and on the UWP.
The UWP is also counting on its usual overwhelmingly superior campaign expenditure largesse yielding positive rates of return on its electoral investments on election day, the SLP is counting on Saint Lucians continuing the trends of regime change every five years – and King, Frederick and the Green Party are hoping wins can help catapult them to parliament -first-and-foremost.
Time will tell
And like with every general elections, voters again hold the key cards – even if only for one day in five years – while the parties play each other for trump cards in a game of life the Saint Lucia electorate seems to have mastered the art of changing parties each time they fail to deliver, deliver their promises or meet voters’ expectations.
Will Saint Lucia’s voters stay on that course, or will they be distracted or derailed by arguments and factors strong enough to change their minds after doing the same three consecutive times in 15 years?
Time will tell – and the wait definitely won’t be too long!