The George Brathwaite Column – New Parties and Bold Engagement
In last week’s column, it was argued that Barbadians are not contented with the functionality of democratic governance as explained by this writer. This week’s submission is a continuation of the discussion, focussing on the need to shape new institutions of participatory and deliberative democracy. Realistically, the present system of governance is gutted by diminishing returns. One unmistakeable issue rests on the weakness of following a model of governance that does not cater to the universal engagement of the population when making important decisions of public policy. This in turn has led to a dearth of confidence in the political system.
Overcoming the declining confidence in Barbados’ political system requires reforms which consider the need for increased citizen engagement. Greater involvement by the electorate that is indicative of a fairer distribution of gender, age, and other social variables, ought to be linked to the classical institutions of representative democracy which feature in the House of Assembly. After all, the voices and opinions of the people on matters of societal importance should matter if democracy is fulfilling its nominal intent. In an effective democracy, the public is routinely asked for their input and informed about actions being taken or contemplated in their names.
However, a growing situation sees apathy and cynicism spawn the political planks with many persons frowning at the elected representatives. The political class’ visibility appears robust only when requiring public support and votes during the campaign period. Even with the availability of new technologies, representation is tragically lost except for the self-maximising photo opportunity. Indeed, the disenchantment with governance in Barbados is driving change; the social and political dynamics are forcing a revisit of Barbados’ archaic governance model.
In recent months, Barbadians heard and saw a surge in ‘new’ political parties interested in contesting the next general elections. Certainly, it is the enshrined constitutional right for individuals to freely associate and come together to form pressure groups and political parties of their creation and interests. Thus far, presentations by these entities have been opaquely faceless and short of names. Shallow appearances by some suggest that the prospective candidates and groups either lack the conviction or are willing to spend as little time/money as possible in mounting their platforms. Regardless, they do not cordially fit into the vehicles of the established institutions of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) or the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).
Notwithstanding the pitfalls of an inherently adversarial political system, it is somewhat encouraging that new and emergent parties and individuals are desirous of exercising their rights through democratic means. Perhaps, there is a brazenness being associated with those candidates and parties bursting out from previous concealment or exclusion. One gathers that these groups, without singing the same song as the current opposition party, have decided to reject passive acceptance of traditions. Their quest to enter the political battle in which the winner takes all and the losers are less likely to be appropriately accommodated is fastidiously bold. These new candidates and parties will step to the batting crease aware that hostile bowling will likely come from both ends.
In the scheme of Barbados’ post-election bedlam, victimisation coupled with latent marginalisation can befall the losing candidates and parties. Such was the case after 2008 when the winning party even went the route of revealing and dismantling the network of consultants that were utilised for the efficiency of governance in the national interest. The new ‘outsider’ parties and candidates are therefore choosing to contest elections against a grain of political normalcy which sometimes borders on lunacy. The journey must be risky given the partisan and divisive Barbadian political culture. The downside is that they may suffer a price that many more are unwilling to pay even in the name of democratic governance.
An emerging picture tells of concerns over the very legitimacy of the electoral process and a tale of possible crises within traditional political parties. The evidence is in low voter turnouts. In the 2013 general elections, nine of the 30 constituencies registered lower than a 60 % turnout of eligible voters. None reached as high as 70 %, and the official data reveal that St. George South had the highest voter turnout at 68.8 % while Christ Church West recorded the lowest at 55. 3 %. The low voter turnout is worrisome and lends to the claim that apathy is present across the Barbadian society. The trend suggests that lower levels of citizen participation happens because voters have been frustrated by everyday governance practices and exclusion. Hence, the preference to stay away from ballot boxes.
An inherent irony is that many citizens and residents comprising both sexes, feel as though their value to Barbados’ democratic system is of note only at elections – usually once every five years. Promises and alleged pecuniary offers to voters have tarnished the island’s image. Persons are rightly disgusted with the vote-buying that featured in 2013, and the proverbial silence of the executive arm of government in the wake of such sordid machinations.
Barbadians, with their high levels of literacy and reasonably high standards of education, are demanding that their voices be heard, and their collective interests catapulted above the paramountcy of the political party. They want their opinions counted as worthwhile in the national discourse on complex issues. The evidence of such can be discerned from the complaints on social media, the popularity of the radio call-in programmes hosted by two leading media outlets, and the numerous ‘letters to the editor’ that reveal the underbelly of a fractured form of democratic governance. Plain and simple, Barbadians want to be able to influence the policy agendas of government in wholesome ways.
Young and old, men and women want to have more input regarding decision-making particularly, as the choices affect them and their livelihoods. In this age, it is insufficient to claim voter power once every five years or to passively and blindly support a political party only to be disappointed and have no say for another five years. Also, it amounts to a travesty when societal hierarchies (e.g. university graduates, business elites, and the professional class) and patterns of discrimination (e.g. low levels of representation or the under-representation of women and youth) are institutionalised within the legislature without any urgency or new modes for addressing this endemic shortcoming.
From the little information put into the public so far, it appears that the emerging new candidates and parties are themselves being drawn to a cloak of secrecy which is counter-productive and does not inspire new democratic footholds. Lack of effective communication cannot be the way forward, although Barbadians may feel encouraged that more citizens are willing to test traditional waters and, become active participants in the civics and politics of the nation. The new political parties should not get automatic support. The electorate must be given ample information and time to digest their values, ideologies, and approaches to managing Barbados’ affairs. It is inexcusable that the new parties appear lost somewhere between self-preservation and intimidation, despite intending to get more than a peep on the inside when it comes to representation and policymaking. All in all, the newcomers to the political line-up continue to ready themselves either to be makers or spoilers.
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a political consultant. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)