There is an emerging narrative within and outside of Grenada (particularly on social media) which seems to suggest that Grenadians intentionally voted to engineer an electoral outcome that guaranteed the absence of a parliamentary opposition.
As a Grenadian and a political scientist I reject that view. As is the case with every Commonwealth Caribbean country, except Guyana, Grenada’s electoral system is based on the first-past-the-post principle. This means that the candidate who amasses the most votes in each constituency wins the seat and the losing party or parties, has/have no representation at all.
It is clear that there are inherent distortions in this system which can lead to unjust electoral outcomes. A major point of contention is that a political party can win the popular vote, but lose the elections overall, as was the case in St Vincent and the Grenadines in 1998.
Another distortion of the first-past-the-post system is that in some instances votes do not always translate proportionally into seats. For example, in the 1984 general elections in Grenada, the Herbert Blaize-led New National Party (NNP) gained just under 60 per cent of the votes cast and won 14 seats, while Eric Gairy’s Grenada United Labour Party (GULP) was able to garner over 35 per cent of the votes, winning only one parliamentary seat.
In 2008, the Tillman Thomas-led National Democratic Congress (NDC) obtained just about 50 per cent of the votes cast and won eleven seats, while the NNP received around 47 per cent, capturing four seats. In 2013 and 2018 respectively, the NNP received less than 60 per cent of the total votes cast winning all 15 seats, while the NDC obtained approximately 40 per cent without gaining any parliamentary seats. This means in essence that approximately 22,377 and 23,250 citizens who voted for the NDC in 2013 and 2018 respectively had and continue to have no representation in the House of Representatives. If Grenada had a system of proportional representation on both occasions the results may have been closer to 9-6 as opposed to 15-0.
There are instances, however, when the first-past-the-post system results in greater proportionality. For example, in the 2003 general elections, the NNP gained 46.6 per cent of the votes cast and won eight seats, while the NDC received 44.10 per cent with seven seats. On that occasion, seats obtained by the major political parties were proportional to votes cast.
What accounted for the 2003 outcome? The NDC had enhanced its appeal to the electorate by injecting new blood into its leadership. At the same time, the ruling NNP started to lose support among several sectors of the society, which culminated in its eventual defeat in 2008. However, the reality is, until there is electoral reform, political parties have to engage in electoral competition fully cognisant of the fact that from time to time votes and seats may be disproportionate.
What does all this mean? The winner-takes-all electoral system intensifies political competition. This provides an incentive for ruling parties to maximize the benefits of incumbency to hold on to power. At the same time, the fierce competition puts pressure on opposition parties to simultaneously consolidate and expand their bases (often without access to resources); raise finances to support political campaigns (often in the absence of campaign finance legislation and excessive spending by incumbents); and present themselves to the electorate as an alternative government in waiting, hoping that the ruling party loses popularity.
In the absence of glaring ideological differences, in order for political parties in the Caribbean to enjoy electoral success they must be able to gain the confidence of the majority of the electorate and mobilize broad-based support across class, gender, generational and other divides. Clearly, in the Grenada case, the NNP has been relatively successful at mobilizing majority support across a wide spectrum of the Grenadian society: the business class; working masses; the elderly; employed and unemployed youth; Christians and atheists, as well as sections of the middle and intellectual classes. This is one of the pivotal reasons why the NNP has emerged as a dominant political party.
Political leadership is absolutely critical. In the context of fierce electoral competition, the political leader must have national appeal, political presence and astute political skill. There must be no doubt that s/he has legitimacy within and outside the political party and commands the reins of the party. Even his detractors must accept that Dr Keith Mitchell is a master craftsman politically. This is another reason why, under his leadership, the NNP has won by a landslide on three occasions. On the other hand, the dilemma for the NDC is that after almost every major defeat the political leader by conventional practice steps down. This means that a new leader has to regroup and the party has to find its political equilibrium all over again. The fact is, since its inception in 1987, the NDC has contested seven general elections under the leadership of five political leaders. On the contrary, since gaining the reins of the NNP in 1989, Dr Mitchell became the founder-leader of that party which he has since maintained.
However, the NNP should be mindful that the 15-0 outcome is not an indication of total national support and its apparent political invincibility does not reflect the true reality. It must be noted that the NNP won all 15 seats but with less than 60 per cent electoral support. Based on the preliminary estimated 73.6 per cent voter turnout (leaving allowances for the fact that the voters’ list needs to be cleaned), there appears to be substantial discontent among the electorate as an estimated 19,000 of the registered voters did not have confidence in either the NNP or NDC and so did not vote.
In the interest of democracy, there is urgency to reform the electoral system to ensure fairer outcomes. In the meantime, the NNP-led government must govern in the interest of all. NNP supporters on the ground must know that Grenada belongs to all Grenadians, including the approximately 23,243 citizens who voted for the NDC and the over 19,000 who refused to vote for either party.
I suggest that a credible democratic watchdog be established in Grenada to keep the ruling party in check. People’s parliaments should be introduced throughout the tri-island state where issues of national concern are debated. Beyond strengthening the social compact that currently exists, there is need for meaningful and sustained citizen engagement. Grenadians need to be active participants in their own governance. During the period of the People’s Revolutionary Government zonal and parish councils were established to foster participatory democracy. Let’s revisit those models of community governance and refashion them for the current moment.
As we approach 50 years as a sovereign state, Grenadians have another opportunity to show the world that we can fulfil the promise of independence to “aspire, build and advance as one people”.