Bi-party politics bring stability to island state

Neil Ford

In Focus Saint Lucia

The small nation of Saint Lucia has explored the idea of forming closer relationships with other Windward Islands to give it a more powerful voice on the international stage. But the idiosyncrasies of the United Nations’ voting system means that there are currently more economic benefits for Caribbean small island states if they remain completely independent and retain their own vote

Saint Lucia

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The Windward Islands’ nation of Saint Lucia is a stable democracy, despite having been an independent nation for just 35 years. Although subject to many of the same scandals and complaints as other countries, the electoral process is considered free and fair, and political parties respect the outcome of elections. There has been some criticism of political interference in the media during 2014, but it is too soon to tell whether this will become a longer-term trend.

Saint Lucia shares many of the same political advantages and challenges as its neighbours in the Caribbean. With a population of just 181,000, it has a small pool of talent from which to draw its politicians and an even smaller pool of highly educated people. Politicians all know each other very well, making politics more concerned with personality than policy. On a more positive note, political leaders are acutely aware of their country’s problems and are not as isolated from the bulk of the population as in bigger countries. Moreover, the country is not as prone to domination by a handful of political family dynasties as other very small states.

The focus on personality is reinforced by the government’s lack of control over the country’s economy. As a micro-state that is largely dependent on tourism, but has few natural resources, its economic fortunes are generally guided by global economic growth rates and, to a lesser extent, global security fears. The very personal nature of politics is also a result of the country’s sensible decision to limit the number of elected members in order to keep administrative costs down. Parliament is broadly modelled on the Westminster style of government and comprises two houses: the House of Assembly, which has 17 seats; and the Senate, which has 11.

Saint Lucia’s first-past-the-post system discourages the electorate from voting for minority parties, so only two parties are represented in parliament: the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) and the United Workers Party (UWP). Three others participated in the 2011 election – the National Democratic Movement, the Lucian People’s Movement and the Lucian Greens – but attracted just 0.44 per cent of the vote between them, while independents took 1.61 per cent of the votes cast.

The SLP won the 2011 parliamentary elections under the leadership of its long-standing leader Kenny Anthony. It secured 11 out of the 17 seats in parliament with 50.99 per cent of the vote, on a manifesto of diversifying the economy in order to create jobs for young people, many of whom leave the country in order to seek work in other countries, such as the USA and former colonial power the UK. The UWP, which has been led by Allen Chastanet since just before the poll, was the dominant party before independence and for most of the 18 years after it. Anthony also led the country under the SLP banner between 1997 and 2006 – indeed, another effect of the small scale of the political class is that defeated SLP and UWP leaders often retain their positions after elections, rather than standing down, as they would in larger countries.

An unemployment rate of 20 per cent, a string of corruption scandals and rising levels of violent crime have created widespread discontent in the country, although part of the economic downturn was the result of the damage inflicted by Hurricane Tomas on plantations and tourist sector infrastructure in 2010. Politicians have been criticised for failing to tackle the island’s role in international drug trafficking, while the police have attracted opprobrium for beating inmates and suspected criminals.

Both political parties have supported the country’s historic ties with the UK, which hosts tens of thousands of people either born in Saint Lucia or of Saint Lucian descent. This migration, however, results in the loss of many skilled workers to the former colonial power, although this relationship with the UK also ensures that Saint Lucian exports get preferential access to European Union markets.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II remains head of state and is represented on the island by the Governor-General, a position which is currently filled by Pearlette Louisy. The Governor-General plays a limited role in national political life but took control for a time in 1981 when the SLP government split and then resigned. As in the British House of Lords, members of the upper house are not elected, although they do serve fixed five-year terms. In Saint Lucia, six are nominated by the prime minister, three by the opposition leader and two by civic society and religious groups in agreement with the government.

Saint Lucia would have a stronger political voice if it were part of a larger political entity, but there seems to be limited enthusiasm for integration in the region. Previous attempts to create a Windward Island Federation have failed, although more progress has been made on economic integration. The impact of this has been minimal because of the distance between the islands and the lack of trade between them.

Part of the lack of appetite for political integration can be laid at the door of the Sino-Taiwanese dispute and struggle for international recognition. Many micro states have used their voting rights at the United Nations as a bargaining chip in their efforts to gain economic support from either China or Taiwan. Saint Lucia and its neighbours are among those to have made the most of this struggle, therefore bringing up to a dozen Caribbean island nations together would surely reduce the size of the windfall for all. Saint Lucia has switched its diplomatic support between the two several times, currently recognising Taiwan, which, in turn, provides economic support to the island. This has recently taken the form of funding and technical support for wi-fi hotspots.

If and when the diplomatic tussle between China and Taiwan comes to an end, it will be interesting to see what impact this has on Caribbean political relations. 

Diversifying from bananas into offshore financial services

Although Saint Lucia’s per capita income is relatively high for a developing country, it has been disadvantaged simply by its small size, small population, and its limited physical and human resources. It is also frequently a victim of tropical hurricanes. Saint Lucia’s primary industries include bananas, beer, and the storage and resale of oil and petroleum. Despite its size, the country has, nevertheless, successfully exploited opportunities in tourism, trade preferences from the EU and USA, and diversification of small-scale manufacturing into electrical products and paper.

Such diversification has reduced Saint Lucia’s dependence on the banana industry, the production and export prices of which have declined sharply since the 1960s. It has also encouraged expansion into the offshore financial services sector and a framework of sound regulation has been established. This helped the country to achieve steady growth throughout the 1990s, but the economy stalled in 2000 and shrunk significantly in the following years, in tandem with the downturn in the USA, and again following the 2008 worldwide financial crisis. Growth in the years since has been incremental, with GDP currently floating around the one per cent per annum mark. Tourism had begun to recover slowly throughout the 2000s, but was hit badly when the island took the brunt of Hurricane Dean in August 2007.

About the author:

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


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