By Jomo Sanga Thomas
The New Democratic Party (NDP) rejected the big tent theory of electoral politics when it disavowed the decision of its Marriaqua Constituency Council. In rejecting Kirk Da Silva and selecting Bernard Wyllie, the NDP leadership showed that it lacked the political experience and acumen necessary for winning, after spending the last 20 years in opposition.
The NDP did not only reach back into its past in selecting Wyllie as its standard-bearer in the next elections, it went way back in the century 20 years in the rear view of history when it selected Wyllie. Wyllie last contested and was badly trounced by ULP Girlyn Miguel in 1998. After his defeat, he drifted out of the country and has had the most tangential relationship with constituents in the last 22 years.
By rejecting Kirk Da Silva, the NDP snubbed the most critically important mantra an opposition party can take to the voters: All are welcomed in our party. It could have played on the biblical refrain “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” The NDP has lost the popular vote in the last five elections beginning in 1998.
In 2015, the ULP improved the percentage of votes received in every constituency except Central Kingstown.
But the party is going for an unprecedented fifth term. Significant sections of the population either loathe the party or suffer from a strong dose of buyers’ remorse. With the selection of Da Silva, the party could have justly said that it was willing to embrace all and sundry to make a change and turn the country around. It can still make that argument, but it may ring hollow considering the fiasco in Marriaqua.
In explaining his decision to lead the effort to reverse the constituency council decision, Godwin Friday, the opposition leader, said that he had gone to the constituency and came to the realisation that supporters disapproved of Da Silva. Is the leader serious? How could you wait until after a unit of your party decides to go into test the favourability of candidates? Why would a party leadership wait until the election fever is rising to decide who it thinks is best to be the standard-bearer in a constituency?
This could never have/would have never happened to Ralph Gonsalves and Julian Francis. It is for good reason they are referred to as the Peter and Paul of Vincentian politics.
With less than 100 days to election day, it is a safe bet to say neither Curtis Bowman nor Phillip Jackson, Kirk Da Silva or Bernard Wyllie seriously challenges Jimmy Prince and ULP hold on Marriaqua constituency.
Why then would a political leader, with the first transparent and public test of his skills, spend vital political capital to upset a decision made by an important unit of his party? If he truly wanted to be adventurous in removing Da Silva, he should have gambled on Phillip Jackson. Jackson is the youngest of the contenders in Marriaqua and could have been a “refreshing new kid” on the block. But Wyllie for Da Silva makes absolutely no sense, the rhetoric of winning the elections notwithstanding. Politically, Wyllie’s selection does not reflect 2020 vision, insight or foresight.
The decision by Friday is even more surprising because it came in the face of tacit endorsements of Da Silva by James Mitchell, the founding father of the party, and St. Clair Leacock, one of the party’s vice presidents. Both pointed to the fact that Da Silva had hit the ground hard and remained in the constituency among constituents after his lost to Jimmy Prince to be the ULP candidate.
Reports are that some questioned Da Silva’s loyalty. They wondered if he was a ULP plant. Most importantly, the silly doubting Thomases wanted to know what would happen if the NDP were to win the elections 8 seats to 7, and Da Silva was to be among the winners. Such analysis reflects a level of infantilism of which the party should be ashamed. Clearly, it cannot be plotting an 8 to 7 seat victory with Marriaqua in that victory calculus.
For what it’s worth, there was something breaking for NDP in June and July. The sailor man Travis Harry came home and took his camera and gumption to expose and oppose to the ULP. Hayne, Velox and “Dre” King openly declared their intention to challenge Camillo Gonsalves in East St George, while Phillip and Kirk joined Wyllie and Bowman in Marriaqua.
In neither of these seats would the NDP gain a breakthrough, but the optics showed that young persons were breaking for them. All of this “momentum” was thrown away with the selection of Wyllie. Further, the decision has placed the party on the defensive. However, Sir James did say that everything is just a seven-day talk and then it blows over.
The campaign waged by NDP hopefuls in both Marriaqua and East St George has brought to the fore another truism about local politics. Aerial assaults – shock and awe on social media, while necessary in this electronic age is evidently insufficient to determine who will emerge as a candidate. The ground war of close combat, meeting and greeting remain massively important. This fact continues to be true even in this age of social distancing forcibly brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 28, 2020, we penned a piece entitled “Too Close to Call”. We called six seats for the ULP and four seats, Northern and Southern Grenadines, Central and West Kingstown for the NDP. We see no reason to change that call. The five constituencies that remain in contention are North, Central and South Leeward as well as East Kingstown and North Windward.
With the absence of mass gatherings, the election campaign has changed and may change even more as we get closer to election day. The virus may present even more challenges.
The party that breaks through in any of the three seats on the Leeward side of the country should start putting its celebratory plans in gear. However, we would not rule out a possibility that the parties may switch seats where the ULP wins at least one that the NDP currently holds and the NDP doing likewise.
We will soon know. But because a week is a long time in politics, “decades” will pass before we go to the polls.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.