PM Gonsalves is celebrating 27 years as an elected parliamentarian in SVG. He has been Prime Minister for 20 of those years. And what (a) 27 years it has been!
Gonsalves, renowned firebrand Marxist university professor, has morphed into a senior elder politician but is notoriously polarizing. The intensity with which he is hated and loved is frequently relived in villages across this land.
Last November, he won a 5th consecutive parliamentary term, thus elevating himself to the top of the regional political heap as a prominent political party leader. His five consecutive electoral victories represent a record in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
As Gonsalves’ aims for his 75th birthday, we are tempted to describe him as a statesman, but Gonsalves would have none of it. He said a statesman is a dead politician.
And he may have a point, if only as it relates to him. Always the political brawler, willing to take the fight to the gutters, he revels in division and controversy. He elevates his base over the country, often to save his skin rather than defend the nation’s interest. The 2008 political rally to defend against rape allegations, the raunchy taped conversation with a young woman in 2015 and the ‘protective cloak’ he wrapped around Camillo’s political troubles during the Yugge Farrell affair in 2018, are best examples of his use or misuse of his leadership positions.
Gonsalves holds a death grip on ULP election campaigns. After catapulting himself to the prime ministerial desk in 2001, with the ‘rule my destiny’ campaign, all future elections have been all Gonsalves, all the time. In 2005 the theme was ‘Keep the comrade there.’ In 2010, supporters were asked to ‘Own the campaign, own the government’ with Gonsalves at the helm. In 2015, the theme shifted slightly to ‘Ask Ralph,’ while 2020’s theme was ‘Lift SVG Higher’ with the 5 Star general as World Boss. Recently, a business aptly labelled him an election genius.
The string of victories has worked well for Gonsalves and those most well-positioned to maximise the benefits. Gonsalves pledged to serve only two terms. He may have been hedging his bets. What is certain is that the party leadership would have none of it. The clear mantra is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Even though the party squeaked home last November with a majority of seats but lost the popular vote, some supporters have so hitched their livelihood to Gonsalves’ occupancy of the state machinery, which they wish out loud that he died in office, but not anytime soon.
History may yet be kind to Gonsalves and not just for his electoral success. He is possessed with a superior intellect. Even the American Central Intelligence Agency, accessing the regional political landscape, listed him ‘as most enlightened of the leaders.’
His gift of gab, though fading, is unparalleled in Vincentian political history. Some say his folksiness is contrived, but we doubt. His ability to connect with supporters and disarm adversaries appear to be a natural gift.
Gonsalves boasts of making governance easy. But as Karl Marx said, ‘Philosophers, of all stripes, have interpreted the world in various ways; the problem, however, is to change it.’
As a parliamentarian, Gonsalves drives a hard bargain. He only wants to win, and he is prepared to win at any cost, even if it means subverting everything he held dear while he was in opposition. In opposition, Gonsalves railed against the NDP for its misuse of state resources during election campaigns. He was particularly incensed in 1998 when his party won 55 percent of the popular votes but had to settle for the opposition benches in an 8/7 parliament. He and Vincent Beache, the party leader at the time, vowed to make the country ungovernable. In power, his misuse of the state (resources) is legendary.
When Justice Henry made a ruling following the 2015 elections petition, Gonsalves bellowed that no court could determine the outcome of the elections. His untruthful claim was a rallying call to arms for supporters. Who will forget the 2010 US elections when Supreme Court delivered the presidency to George Bush Jr?
The singular act that may dull Gonsalves many achievements as a politician is his performance during the 2018 debate on the opposition’s motion of no confidence.
First, he tried to use his 8/7 parliamentary majority to block the debate by calling a vote on whether even to table the motion in the assembly. When that tactic failed, he proposed a motion that essentially turned the motion of no confidence into a motion of confidence, assaulting the constitution in the process. But, it was the Speaker’s fault. Rather than stick to his democratic instincts and disallow such a gambit, the speaker lost his resolve on a misinterpretation of the rule on amendments, and allowed Gonsalves to have his way.
But there is more. His strong authoritarian streak, reflected in his attempt to economically assassinate Anesia Baptiste, Leon ‘Bigger Bigs’ Samuels, as well as teachers Otto Sam, Elvis Daniel, Kenroy Johnson and Addison ‘Bash’ Thomas are dark stains on his resume.
But Gonsalves is not all negative. His efforts as a policy wonk remain unmatched. He is the intellectual and political architect of every strategy and tactic, every programme and policy articulated by the ULP. Gonsalves will be long remembered for his herculean effort to ensure that SVG constructed an international airport, and won a seat on the United Nation’s Security Council. So will be his commitment to bring university education to the poor.
While his hyper-partisanship deepened the political chasm in Vincentian society and his policy implementation is suspect at best, his policy formulation deserves credit. The Lives to live, Home Health for the Elderly, Disadvantaged Student Loans, 100 percent Mortgage for Public Employees are policies that have been celebrated.
If Gonsalves is not actively considering his political exit, biology is determined to plot his departure. He is obese and rapidly slowing down. Having served himself and his family well over those 27 years, we can only hope that he grooms a replacement in the North Central Windward who is not of his bloodline. He owes Vincent Beache and Vincentians that much.
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