Are third parties in the Caribbean doomed?
By Oliver Mills
The commonly accepted wisdom in the Caribbean has been, and still is, that third political parties are doomed, and that any attempt to establish them will be met with failure. This belief is based on the fact that, in almost all Caribbean countries where a third political party has attempted to challenge the political process, it has met with failure, and in many instances some, or even all its members have lost their deposits. The electorate therefore seems to have lost trust and confidence that a third party will meet with any significant success, and have come to see them as a waste of time.
In his commentary in Caribbean News Now on February 12, 2011, on the failure of third parties, Wellington Ramos states that this failure is due to poor planning, no grassroots campaign, and the time of launching of these political parties, which is just before elections. He also states that after they lose, they disappear. In stating these reasons for third party failure, Ramos does not explain further what the phrases he uses such as poor planning, no grassroots campaign, and the time of launching these parties mean.
For example, what is meant by poor planning on the part of third parties? Does it mean planning to some extent, but with some inadequacy involved, or does it mean engaging in the process of planning without a clear direction or purpose attached to the various efforts? Does poor planning mean planning, but with little insight as to the purpose and point of the efforts made? Or does poor planning mean inefficient planning, not taking into account critical factors concerning the wider political process? How do we know when planning is poor? This is only judged after the results of some action, not before. Also, does poor planning mean being erratic, unfocused, tentative, and not following through with different ideas as to what the party needs and how it will achieve its goals? The writer needs to elaborate on this phrase.
No grassroots campaign is the other reason Ramos cites as a failure by third parties. Although he mentions with respect to Belize about not campaigning island wide and not establishing structures, this is not enough. Grassroots campaigning further means going into the various sectors of the society and spreading the philosophy of the party on a consistent basis. It means having public and town hall meetings, and meeting people where they usually hang out. But this is not only for grassroots people. It is for all potential voters. It also means constant political education, advertisements, and appearing on various media houses to spread the message.
From my experience, there is no such thing as no grassroots campaign, since the grassroots is where the majority of persons are. Third parties do approach them and try to win them over. But in many instances, they are so indoctrinated into the ways of the established parties, that they often give the rebuff to any new effort by a third party. The party’s officials therefore have to exercise patience, be sensitive to the ways of this constituency, win their trust, have a clear philosophy, and try to move them incrementally.
Change is difficult, and people at the grassroots level have to believe they are backing a winner before they commit themselves. Furthermore, labelling a particular constituency as grassroots, belittles them, places them in a category where they might feel devalued, and so there is the risk of losing support particularly if party officials adopt a condescending attitude. The third party therefore needs to see each type of constituency equally, and treat it as such. The class and sector approach to politics will not work.
The time of launching the third party is the final reason Ramos gives for their failure. How do we know precisely and accurately when it is the time to do anything? We can only suspect that a set of conditions exist, and that we should therefore capitalise on them. Suppose Obama had served out his Senate years, would he ever have become president? The point is to take prudent, measurable risks. We can never know exactly when to make a move. We just have to engage with the situation, alert ourselves to its dynamics, and seek the most opportune and rational moment in which to take the plunge. To say that the time of launching the third party contributes to its failure is therefore a misnomer. It is pure speculation based on an analytical fallacy.
Ramos states vaguely that they are launched just before an election. What does this phrase mean? Two weeks or months before, or two years? The phrase is vague to the point of being almost meaningless. The fact is that, if a sufficiently large percentage of the populace is fed up, they will show this in a protest vote. Although it might not be sufficient to win initially because of the psychological grip of the two traditional parties, if the third party persists, it could surprise itself.
For example, third parties now exist in several countries including the UK, Israel, the USA, and France. As is seen in the UK, a third party could become a part of the government based on the distribution of seats after an election. Even in the Caribbean, some third party candidates have won seats, and they later joined on an individual basis with the governing party, particularly if they make a difference in who forms the government. In Israel, third parties have always helped to constitute various governments. This is also the case in Italy.
However, I agree with Ramos, that often, in the Caribbean, third parties dissolve after an election. They seem to lose hope, and the will to persist. But third parties are formed as a result of a crisis in the status quo parties. Their members feel that the electorate is so fed up that they desire fundamental change. The case of the National Democratic Movement in Jamaica is an example, as is the Turks and Caicos Islands with the formation of the National Democratic Alliance party. The NDA did dissolve after a particular election, but the NDM in Jamaica continues mostly as a pressure group. Its initial leader returned to his original party, and is now the prime minister.
So are third parties doomed to failure? It is certainly not wise to give a quick answer. In a theoretical sense, nothing is doomed to failure. The context and circumstances of an issue require serious deliberation. This will determine the success of the effort, or its need to change course. Nothing should be condemned outright. If third party officials have a clear philosophy and ideology which connect with the aspirations of the people, and they win the people’s trust, the groundwork is laid for serious, constant, and persistent work. If party officials are committed to the political work required to enlist the faith of the people in the party’s objectives, then support will be forthcoming over time. Remember, the third party is in the political business of changing mindsets, and re-socialising people into a new way of thinking and being. It will be challenging at first, but consistency and constancy on the part of party officials are necessary.
Third parties are therefore not doomed to failure. They attract new blood and talent into the political process, bring new ideas, challenge old, established ways of operating, and could bring hope to those who want serious change in the infrastructure of Caribbean politics. Third parties can also bring ideas about different, more workable political structures and processes into the political system, and introduce a more ethical and moral politics into political systems weighed down by traditions that have not worked to the benefit of significant numbers of people. They are therefore not doomed to failure. In fact they do not fail. It is those who have been instrumental in their establishment that have failed to consistently operationalise the beliefs and philosophy they advocate on a sustained basis.
Persons forming third parties also need to convince potential followers that they are not in the political business for personal gain. They must prove that principles guide their efforts, and that the goal is a new and transformed society, and political order. Leaders of third parties also have to refute the idea by others that they have everything they need, but want more at the people’s expense. These leaders will also have to show that they have a different kind of political psychology that the third party is not third in any numbering system, but is a movement with no other goal than the political expression of the general will of the people. And that indeed, the third party is the people in action, since the new political institutions the party establishes, will convey and manifest the aspirations and objectives of the people.
Selflessness, a noble sense of purpose, and the urgency to do the will of the people become the philosophical frame of reference for the third party. With this in mind, the third party will enjoy the confidence and goodwill of the people, and will therefore gain respect and credibility. It could then become a potent force for good in the politics of the Caribbean.
February 23, 2011