Barbados: Polls and popularity

Albert Brandford

Keeping things on an even keel

The government’s handling of Barbados’s small, but successful, economy will be closely watched by voters in the lead-up to the country’s next elections. Campaigning will take place with the memory of the global financial crisis and the popular former prime minister, the late David Thompson, still very fresh in the minds of the electorate. 


A former British colony of around 290,000 hardy souls, Barbados is now about 18 months shy of a general election, which is constitutionally due in early 2013. Given the enormity of the fiscal, economic and social challenges that the island currently faces, it’s a contest that both major political parties may secretly prefer to lose. 

The government’s confidence in its handling of the economic difficulties, visited in the wake of the global financial crisis, was shaken by the death, last October, of David Thompson – Barbados’ sixth prime minister since independence in 1966. This created a void in the political scene even greater than that caused by the demise, in 1987, of Errol Barrow, Thompson’s mentor and the late father of independence. 

The charismatic Thompson inherited not only Barrow’s lucrative law practice but also his constituency of St John. He confidently led the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) into office in January 2008, when he defeated the ruling Barbados Labour Party (BLP) under the leadership of respected economist Owen Arthur, whose 14 years in office were marked by economic growth and prosperity. 

The fortunes of this small island – which had assiduously built up an international reputation as an investor’s dream, on the basis of its social, economic and political stability, as well as a place pregnant with business opportunities – have not always proved easy to sustain, especially in the eyes of Barbadian voters. 

Questions about the ideal economic strategy for Barbados to follow were again raised when Thompson’s new government brought in its 2008 budget, which asked the usually resilient Barbadians to shoulder an additional tax bill of $100 million. The political consequences of these measures have been observed by pollsters. Recent polls show that the margins of the ruling party’s victory in some pivotal seats have become so close that this could prove to be Barbados’ first one-term administration; the tradition has been for at least two terms for a governing party. 

Thompson’s successor as Prime Minister, Freundel Stuart, a former Attorney General, served as deputy to the two previous DLP leaders. Since taking the helm he has tried to keep both the unsettled party and the country on an even keel. This has been no easy feat in a region where some neighbouring countries have gone into financial meltdown. Although an eloquent public speaker, Stuart has been reluctant to address the challenges facing the country, often ignoring the calls within and without the DLP to assert his leadership. It has usually been left to the Minister of Finance, Chris Sinckler, a Thompson ally, to spell out the realities. 

In this year’s August budget, Sinckler, with an eye firmly on the election clock, tailored a medium-term strategy for restructuring the economy, but also offered relief from burdensome land taxes, as well as income tax deductions for energy conservation and renewable energy for both individuals and small businesses. 

Sinckler promised support to pensioners, the unemployed, indigent and the disabled with a one-off $2.5 million energy grant; he announced populist initiatives to cash in on the international fame of cricketing national hero Sir Garfield Sobers and the pop superstar Rihanna; and he proposed to put Barbados on the world stage in motor sports with an International Racing Federation assisted upgrade of the race track at the popular Bushy Park. 

A recent leak to an online publication of the findings of a still unpublished opinion poll by Peter Wickham, of the Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES), suggested that there is a growing preference for Sinckler to take over the DLP leadership. The leak also happened to reveal that ousted opposition leader Mia Mottley is overwhelmingly preferred as leader of the BLP over Owen Arthur. 

Even though there was no statistical evidence that Stuart was not the preferred choice as DLP leader, the results were clearly not comforting to the ruling party as the prime minister risks paying the price of public dissatisfaction with what many see as a below par performance in handling the economy to date. Political observers say the BLP’s standing has grown significantly among the electorate since the last major poll of all 30 seats was conducted by CADRES for the Nation Publishing Company in 2010. 

Of course, any criticism of the present government’s handling of the economy can be exploited by both the BLP and Owen Arthur, whose management skills have been lauded regionally and internationally. As the election looms closer, the opposition will almost certainly try to suggest that the enviable social conditions for which Barbados is known were built on the back of sound economic management, and that any departure from this would compromise the very social entitlements that have made it a leading developing country for the past two decades. 

Whatever the polls say, it is entirely possible that Stuart will take the DLP into the next electoral contest, thus leaving the leadership unchanged until some future date. An element of the party’s electoral strategy will be to milk the memory of the beloved Thompson, though the value of this approach will be short-lived as his passing fades in the consciousness of the average Barbadian.

About the author:

Albert Brandford is a Barbadian political journalist.


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