Grenada: landslide election victor looks for consensus on debt

Neil Ford

With the New National Party winning all the seats in the 2013 elections, the country has no official opposition. But Prime Minister Keith Mitchell has pledged to reach out to other parties 

The Windward Island nation of Grenada faces many of the same problems as other parts of the Caribbean. Too little work and too much debt pose challenges for whichever government is in power. Voters are swayed by the performance of the economy, but domestic politicians have relatively limited influence over economic performance in the context of global developments. 

But for events three decades ago, the island could have been largely overlooked by world history – as it turned out, the country is now remembering the 30th anniversary of an invasion that gave it a very special place during the final decade of the Cold War. It is difficult to discuss Grenadian politics without considering by far the biggest event in its post-independence history. It is now more than a generation since US forces invaded tiny Grenada, under the pretext of re-establishing order following a bloody coup. 

The People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) had governed the island since seizing power in 1979. It quickly forged links with the communist world but, although its rhetoric was always more radical than its policies, it attracted the ire of Ronald Reagan’s administration at a time when US prestige had been shaken by the withdrawal from Vietnam, the US hostage crisis in Tehran and, most recently, the deaths of more than 200 marines in Lebanon. 

The Beirut barrack bombings outraged US public opinion and government, and there was a strong desire to strike in revenge somewhere… anywhere. The overthrow and murder of the PRG’s charismatic leader, Maurice Bishop, by a more hard-line, pro-Soviet section of the PRG, gave Washington the opportunity that it needed. It had already prepared a task force to send to Beirut that could easily be diverted south to Grenada. The resulting invasion in October 1983 was a limited military operation, but it propelled Grenada to the top of the international news agenda for the first, and thus far only, time in its history. This was in part because the US invasion was opposed by Grenada’s former colonial power, the UK, and also because it broke international law. 

The 30th anniversary of the invasion has reawakened memories of the Grenadian revolution, but the country’s politics over the intervening years have been far from revolutionary. Indeed, they have been typical of small island countries, with power changing hands between two rival parties, whose members are very well known to each other, having grown up together in a tiny population that even now numbers just 105,000. 

Moreover, the outcome of an election is generally determined by the country’s economic fortunes, rather than political ideology. The people of Grenada always equated the benefits and ambition of the PRG government with Bishop rather than with the revolution and there is little political legacy from this experiment with hard line politics. Voters are now more concerned with the government’s struggle to cope with unmanageably high levels of debt and weak economic growth. Tillman Thomas’s National Democratic Congress Party (NDC) proved unable to provide a solution during its time in power and suffered a landslide defeat in this February’s general election. 

Keith Mitchell, who served as Prime Minister from 1995 until 2008, regained power this year as his New National Party (NNP) took all 15 seats on offer, leaving the country without any official legislative opposition. Five new parties were set up to break the mould of two-party politics and to contest the election, but four of these performed spectacularly badly, attracting 22 votes or fewer each. Even the fifth, the National United Front, received just 186 votes, leaving the NDC as the only realistic alternative to the NNP in the run-up to the next election. Mitchell has pledged to strengthen the country’s finances. He said: “The victor is the one who has to reach out, the one who lost can’t be expected to reach out – national unity will be a serious platform… The sheer scale of our debt overhung against the backdrop of a shrinking economy has become a binding constraint on growth.” 

He promised to take “immediate steps to embark on a comprehensive and collaborative restructuring of the public debt”, but added that any restructuring “must be appropriate for the circumstances Grenada faces”. 

Despite his party’s dominance, he has pledged to seek a broad consensus on its strategy to tackle the national debt. In October, the government signed an agreement with the Committee of Social Partners – made up of the Grenada Conference of Churches, the Grenada Private Sector Organisation, the Grenada Trades Union Council and the Inter-agency Group of Development Organisations – to work together to restructure both the national debt and the economy. 

The Grenada Conference of Churches has appealed to the government to reduce the debt to a maximum level of 50 per cent of GDP. It also said: “Before the government signs any programme, it must seek consensus with the people on the package of reform measures the country will undertake.” 

As in many other developing and middle-ranking economies around the world, Grenada could seek support from Beijing. It switched its diplomatic support from Taiwan to China in 2005 and has received a new US$40 million cricket stadium in return. Other projects or preferential trade deals could follow as the Chinese government continues its diplomatic offensive in what Washington had previously considered its sphere of influence. 

Much of the debt was actually built up during Mitchell’s previous three terms in power but this year’s electoral success owes much to the timing of the global economic crisis, which struck the island just as the NDC was taking control. The economic policies of the two parties vary relatively little: the NDC had promised to expand the tourist sector, while the NNP pledged to create more jobs, although, in practice, both were relying on increased visitor numbers to create more employment and economic growth. 

With the first year of NNP’s current term in office almost up, Grenadians will be hoping to see the NNP’s promises for job creation start to yield results. 


About the author:

Neil Ford is an independent consultant and journalist, focusing on international affairs, particularly in developing countries


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