by Wendy C Grenade, PhD
At the party’s convention held on Sunday, 31 October 2021, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) elected Attorney-at-Law, Dickon Mitchell, as its new political leader. Several new and returning officers were also elected to the NDC’s executive.
I congratulate Mr Mitchell, the other members of NDC’s new-look executive and all the delegates who participated in a dynamic democratic process. The attempt by the NDC to renew itself is significant not only for the NDC party but more importantly for the democratic health of the country as a whole. Why is this so?
First, in the contestation for political power, inspirational political leadership is a criterion for electoral success. What young Mitchell brings to the political arena is a breath of fresh air and a youthful energy that, in itself, could be appealing, particularly to Grenada’s predominantly youthful population. Although the governance of a small-island developing state in the 21st century is becoming increasingly complex, the need to reset the ‘post’Covid-19 economy and society presents an opportunity for new thinking, fresh, innovative ideas and bold action for new times. Should the NDC win the next general elections, Mitchell’s youthfulness and political inexperience would have to be buttressed by wise political counsel; highly competent technocratic teams; inclusive governance; genuine partnerships with Civil Society Organisations; meaningful engagement with the Grenadian diaspora; and a citizenship compact with Grenadians, particularly the youth. This compact would have to be inspirational, offering hope amid uncertainty. This new compact should locate people at the heart of politics, treating them as citizens, not as mere voters.
Second, in a well-functioning democracy, political competition requires that all political parties present viable options to enable citizens to make informed decisions as voters. This has not always been the case in Grenada’s general elections. What has emerged in Grenada is the entrenchment of one dominant political party in a first-past-the-post electoral system that at times leads to unjust electoral outcomes. On three occasions (1999, 2013 and 2018) the New National Party (NNP) won all 15 parliamentary seats amassing 62.4, 58.5 and 58.91% of the popular votes. In a parliamentary democracy that assumes a parliamentary opposition for its functioning, this trend is unhealthy for democracy.
Besides the distortions of the first-past-the-post electoral system, several factors can account for the NNP’s electoral dominance: stable political leadership; the party’s ability to appeal to all classes and diverse demographic groups throughout all constituencies; gender balance among its candidates; its ability to appeal to the poor, among other factors. Despite its strengths, the NNP’s weaknesses include: the creation of a highly politicised public service; a culture of fear within the public service; blurring of the lines between the party, state and government; a development model that is based on quick fixes, with no serious attention paid to sustainability; the lack of a meaningful transformative agenda; neglect of the productive sectors, among other weaknesses. Importantly, a glaring weakness of the NNP is its inability to identify a successor to replace the veteran Dr Keith Mitchell. This is an indictment on the political leader, since effective leadership must include mentoring and coaching to groom future leaders. This may become one of the decisive factors in the next general elections.
Additionally, close observation of Grenada’s electoral politics reveals that the NNP’s dominance can also be attributed to the fact that the NDC has not always presented itself as a viable alternative. When did the NDC perform relatively well and what factors accounted for its electoral performance? In the 2003 and 2008 general elections, new blood was infused into the NDC’s heart. Its political leadership was renewed, which motivated and (re)energised its base. Also, what worked in the NDC’s favour was the fact that the Mitchell-led NNP had been in office for over a decade and there was serious discontent with the quality of NNP’s governance. The record shows that when the NDC resuscitates itself, it becomes a serious electoral contender. In 2003 and 2008 NDC amassed 45.3 and 50.9% of the popular votes gaining 7 and 11 seats respectively. Therefore, all things being equal, the election of a new executive and a new, youthful political leader, holds out possibilities that the NDC may be able to mount a serious challenge to the NNP in the next general elections.
Yet, despite the possibilities that may exist, the NDC party cannot be complacent, nor can it afford any missteps. To be successful in the next general elections it is important for the NDC to learn lessons from the past, some of which include:
- Inspirational, strategic political leadership is essential to sustain party cohesion and ensure effective governance.
- Intra-party factions are common within all political parties. However, conflict must be skillfully managed to avoid breakdown.
- While there must be clear boundaries between the state, government and the party, the ruling party has to rule in the interest of all. While it should not engage in nepotism it cannot neglect its base in the governance process. This requires mastering the art of politics.
- The NDC must develop an intrinsic capacity to care for the poor. An elitist snobbery of Grenada’s poor dooms the party to failure. There must be an empowering impulse to address the needs of Grenada’s poor. Safety nets for the most marginalised and vulnerable cannot be dismissed as unwarranted ‘hand-outs’. Yet, there must be a progressive, transformative agenda that promotes skills-development, holistic education, entrepreneurship and wealth-generation to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and dependency on government.
- Genuine youth empowerment must be a central pillar for sustainable development. Politics must be conducted in an environment that gives young people hope.
- Women’s political participation is an imperative for successful governance. Female leadership matters since women and men bring different attributes to decision-making.
- A ‘good governance’ agenda void of flexible, pragmatic, decision-making is a recipe for failure. Taking leaps and managing risks are cornerstones of resilience-building. To be overly cautious in the formulation and implementation of public policy is as detrimental as engaging in quick-fixes and hustler-politics.
- There must be the right balance between survivability of the party and long-term sustainability and transformation of the country.
- The NDC leadership must not be disconnected from the people it leads. It has to develop the art of listening to the people, feel the pulse on the ground and shift tactics, when necessary, for the benefit of the party and the country.
- It must convince the Grenadian electorate that it is ready to govern from day one and that it has what it takes to effectively govern, with a transformative vision to shape a new Grenada.
As Grenada approaches 50 years as a sovereign independent state, this is an opportunity to renew democracy by having a vibrant political party system that allows all political parties to participate in free and fair political competition. In his acceptance speech, the NDC’s political leader, Dickon Mitchell, painted a picture of Grenada as a mountain above which a sunrise appears. He envisioned 3 generations of Grenadians moving towards that sunrise, representing hope. Can the young Mitchell’s dream become a reality? The next general elections may be the battle of all electoral battles in Grenada as one Mitchell’s son/sun rises and the other sets.
Wendy Grenade is Senior Lecturer in Political Science, Department of Government, Sociology, Social Work & Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.