Thursday, April 25, 2024

Stuart’s dilemma


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Sometime before the 15th of April, 2013, there is going to be a general election in Barbados, and we have to prepare to run with patience that race which is set before us, but I want to tell you this, I will go to the end of my tether, I will strain every sinew in my body to ensure that the catastrophe that befell Barbados between 1994 and 2008 in the month of January, does not befall it again. – Prime Minister Freundel Stuart at the 2011 Democratic Labour Party Independence Gala And Awards, Ilaro Court.
THAT SOUNDS TO ME like a man who acknowledges that his administration needs every single day legally available to it before calling the next general election.
Still, it was a curious call by Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, who seemed to be setting April 15, 2013, as the outer legal band within which an election must be held.
I’m not sure at which base point the Prime Minister started his calculations – quite possibly it was Election Day, January 15, 2008.
But as has been pointed out by a former chairman of the Electoral & Boundaries Commission (EBC), the five-year lifespan of a Barbados Parliament starts from the date of its first sitting.
After dissolution, there is an extension of 90 days within which period the election must be held.
Therefore, since the first sitting of the First Session of 2008-2013 was on February 12, 2008, then the next election day is to be within 90 days of that anniversary. That makes May 12, and not April 15, 2013, the last day for the holding of the next general election.
Stuart, despite his stated intention of “going to the end of my tether”, may well be inadvertently denying himself a valuable four weeks that he may need to persuade an increasingly sceptical electorate that the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Government should get a second term.
A week in politics, it is often said, is a long time.
For a Government that has been lurching from crisis to crisis, and almost every week is having to deal with major problems – from CLICO to Four Seasons through REDjet to Almond – giving up four weeks may be a risk too great.
To date, no Barbadian Prime Minister has utilized the constitutionally allowed grace period in calling an election, but then again Stuart has proven to be different thus far.
Any decision made by a politician is simply political, and in the case of calling an election, there is no decision that is more political. In this sense, there are several issues that will influence the date of the next general election.
Other critical issues
These include the performance of the economy and by extension such indicators as the unemployment rate, inflation and economic growth; but there are some non-economic issues which are just as critical.
In the 1970s, Arthur Okun, who had previously chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under United States’ President Lyndon B. Johnson, invented a “discomfort index”, which was simply the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate. The discomfort index was later renamed the misery index and figured in at least two presidential campaigns.
Jimmy Carter used it to criticize President Gerald Ford in 1976, and Ronald Reagan used it to criticize Carter in 1980.
Surprisingly, the misery index has not been utilized in local politics, but an equally feared adjustment to the country’s fixed exchange rate is tantamount to a misery index. In this regard, the recent Moody’s report is instructive and may have significant influence on the calling of the next general election.
The report refers to the exchange rate when it states: “The negative outlook also reflects the possibility that pressures on Barbados’ fixed exchange rate could result due to an anticipated rise in the current account deficit in a context of large and increasing Government deficits.”
In the face of large and increasing Government deficits, the current DLP administration has been unable to launch a programme to build roads and other infrastructure, which is usually one of the barometers used to judge the performance of a Government over a five-year term.
On this score, the Government has not done well.
Capital works programme
Moody’s is calling for more fiscal consolidation in the coming year, yet the Government is projecting a substantial increase in its capital works programme to coincide with the coming election. The politics requires that the Government give itself a chance
to influence the electorate, while the economics calls for fiscal consolidation to take pressure off of the country’s exchange rate.
If the capital spending is to have influence
on the electorate, then the Prime Minister’s reference to April 2013, which includes the grace period,
is understandable, since he obviously needs time.
But given the constraint of time, the Prime Minister has to find other ways to influence the electorate, which means that tax relief may be the only viable alternative to spending on capital projects.
Tax relief could come in the form of reducing the VAT rate, removing the tax on travel and entertainment allowances and lowering the prices of gasoline and diesel. In each case, these measures go against fiscal consolidation as preached by the international institutions and the Central Bank.  
The other political consideration is getting consensus among those who influence the popular vote. In this regard, Moody’s notes that “the social partnership which supports this consensus may also be contributing to a climate of political inertia, which is inhibiting the implementation of the structural reforms necessary to improve competitiveness and address the Government’s fiscal challenges”.
It is not unusual or unexpected for political expediency to take precedence over such things as fiscal consolidation, when a politician is faced with a choice of winning or losing. The principle of winning at all costs fits comfortably into the domain of the politician. This principle becomes more self-evident when a political party is faced with real likelihood of being a one-term government.
In the circumstances that currently prevail on Barbados’ political landscape, where the poor are hurting, the middle class are in retreat and businesses are unsure, the odds are increasingly stacked against the incumbent.
Fiscal crisis
What started out as an economic recession in 2008 mushroomed into a fiscal crisis by the following year and eventually became a crisis of confidence among businesses and households. To the extent that the last four years of economic misery have been accompanied, for the most part, by a different brand of politics,
the recession has not been combated by a language of recovery and renewed hope.
As a result, a state of political paralysis has been reached that requires shock treatment to both the economy and the body politic, which is at variance with what is being prescribed by all the experts, both local and international.
To this end, the calling of the next general election is trapped in a comatose state, since political recovery seems unrelated to the date of the election.           
While deliberate expression and action were being recognized as the new normal of political leadership, the perfect storm was gathering as economic clouds descended upon a political wind of change, whose direction had not yet been fully determined.
In the midst of the uncertainty, the architect of the change departed. However, the potential benefits that were expected to be realized from the early loss are not now anticipated in the aftermath of the CLICO affair.
The revelations, no doubt, have pushed back the calling of the election.  
Blessed Easter to all.    
• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent. Email


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