A Busy Year in the Caribbean: Elections

This article (including the graphics) was originally published by the Global Americans on January 9, 2020.

The Caribbean has a challenging year ahead as voters are set to head to the polls in Belize, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. Elections will be hard-fought throughout the region, and with the economic outlook for the Caribbean being relatively positive—the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts a pick-up in growth from 3.3 percent in 2019 to 3.7 percent in 2020—the electorate of each country will keep a close eye on how candidates look to divide the economic pie. 

Indeed, the economy is the most important issue for most voters across the Caribbean. In Guyana and Suriname, this will take on greater meaning in light of massive offshore oil discoveries in the former, and a recent major oil discovery off the coast of the latter, strongly suggesting a similar hydrocarbon bounty. One last country that is overdue for national elections is Haiti, but the country’s political turmoil has meant that the vote has been postponed (in 2019), and no future date has been given. 

Below is an overview of the upcoming Caribbean elections. 

Guyana (Presidential/Parliamentary Elections)

Guyana, which saw its elections postponed in 2019, heads to the polls on March 2. The election will be closely monitored as this South American country of a little under 800,000 people emerges as one of the world’s newest oil powers. Guyana’s newfound fame became  evident when it made the front page of the Wall Street Journal on January 2, 2020, with an article titled “This Stock Exchange Only Trades on Mondays: Guyana’s Sleepy Stock Exchange Braces for Change.” The article focused on the low level of activity in Guyana’s local stock exchange, however, the “sleepy” exchange would soon wake up when oil money begins to flood into country. 
As Guyanese voters head to the polls, they have to consider how the next government will manage the country’s newfound wealth, which according to the IMF, is expected to make the economy expand in excess of 80 percent in 2020. Will voters reelect President David Granger’s A Partnership for National Unity-Alliance for Change (APNU-AFC), or the opposition candidate Irfaan Ali, a former minister of housing running under the People’s Progressive Party (PPP)? 

Founded in 2011, the APNU groups several parties, including the largest political party, the People’s National Congress (PNC)—supported, to a large extent, by the country’s Afro-Guyanese community. The AFC was created in 2005 by dissident PNC members and created an alliance with the APNU in 2015. Running against the APNU-AFC alliance is the center-left PPP, which was founded in 1950 and is generally supported by the Indo-Guyanese community. Political emotions are high in Guyana due to the postponement of the election last year, corruption accusations, and questions over contracts between the country and major oil companies.

The Dominican Republic (Presidential/Congressional Elections)

In the Dominican Republic’s election, the run-up has already seen considerable jockeying for position among presidential candidates in the country’s two major parties: the Dominican Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Dominicano or PRD) and the Dominican Liberation Party (Partido de la Liberación Dominicana or PLD). The PLD currently makes up the government, headed by President Danilo Medina, who is not seeking reelection. Medina did explore the possibility of a third term, but this would require a constitutional change and was strongly opposed by much of the public.  
While the Dominican Republic has seen strong economic expansion over the years, one of the major issues for the upcoming vote will concern income inequality. One Dominican speaking to a Bloomberg journalist in October 2019 outlined the country’s key issues: “The economy grows, but doesn’t flow down to us. There is no drainage system, water arrives every three days, and the lights go out for 24 hours at a time.” This boils down to the need for better infrastructure in the areas of sanitation, water and electrical generation and distribution. The response also touches upon another more sensitive issue, which will no doubt be part of the campaign trail: official corruption.  
A tough battle is expected over who will be the Dominican Republic’s next leader and deal with these issues, as well as its struggles with Haiti, which shares a lengthy land border with the country and is in a state of political turmoil, and the China-U.S. cold war. 

Suriname (General Elections)

Suriname’s election should be equally as interesting. While the economy has enjoyed a gradual recovery from an earlier slump in key commodity prices, the incumbent president, Desi Bouterse, has been the dominant political figure in the country since 1980. In late November 2019 he was convicted for the murder of 15 political opponents in 1982 and sentenced to 20 years in prison by Suriname’s court system. That wasn’t the first time he’s been caught up in controversy. 
Years earlier, Boutersewas convicted by the Netherlands for cocaine smuggling and more recently was accused of helping Venezuelan gold  transit through Surinameto overseas markets. His son, Dino, sits in a U.S. federal prison after he was caught offering Hezbollah use Suriname as a base for its organization as well as for a sale of cocaine. 
Despite those political blemishes, Bouterse has maintained a degree of popularity in the country partially due to the economic recovery of the country and his personal charisma. He has largely ignored the recent court’s findings against him. 
Suriname’s leader has also moved his country closer to China after a visit toBeijing in November 2019. During his visit, President Bouterse stated: “Suriname firmly pursues one-China policy and supports China’s grand cause of national reunification.” He returned to Suriname with a promise of $300 million by the Chinese government to upgrade airports and roads and install solar power and 5G services.  
President Bouterse, now 74, has stated that he is seeking re-election, or his third term in office. The election could be tension-packed if the opposition is able to stir enough public dissent toward Bouterse’s leadership issues, focused on his recent murder convictions.
President Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP)-led government has the advantage of holding numerous seats in office—having won 26 of 51 seats in the country’s National Assembly in 2015—and enjoying the benefit of economic recovery,with real GDP expected to rise 2.5 percent this year. An unexpected added bonus for the government is a large offshore oil discovery in January 2020 by Apache and Total, holding out the prospect for a major boost to the national economy, much as what is occurring in neighboring Guyana. 
With eyes focused on the presidential elections given Bouterse’s murder conviction, raising concerns over the rule of law; Suriname’s closer alignment to China, opposing U.S. concerns in the Caribbean; and concerns over who will be in charge of overseeing the country’s future monetizing of oil wealth, this is a major election for Suriname.  

Trinidad and Tobago (Parliamentary elections)

While there is no official date for the Trinidad and Tobago’s elections, they must be called by September 2020. The incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM) led by Prime Minister Keith Rowley will face a tough challenge from the United National Congress (UNC), led by Kamla Persad Bissessar (a former prime minister from 2010-2015). Currently, there is a third party with representation in the parliament, the Congress of the People (COP), but it only holds one seat. 
Trinidad and Tobago’s economy has been in the grips of a prolonged recession driven by energy supply shocks and low energy prices. No doubt the economy will be the major issue for the campaign. The IMF is forecasting 1.5 percent growth for 2020, an improvement over two brutal years of economic contraction in 2016 and 2017, 0.3 percent growth in 2018 and zero growth last year. Unemployment has fallen, after peaking in 2017 at a little over 5.0 percent and is most likely around four percent, according to theCentral Bank of Trinidad and Tobago. 
Trinidad and Tobago’s political life is also being conditioned by other issues, such as the ongoing inflow of Venezuelan refugees and their accommodation, high levels of criminal violence—some of it related to the arrivals from Venezuela—domestic violence and corruption.  Although the election has not been officially called, both major political parties are in campaign mode.  

Belize (Parliamentary elections)

Belize is set to head to the polls in November. The incumbent government is that of Prime Minister Dean Barrow, head of the United Democratic Party (UDP), which has been in office since 2008. It appears that Prime Minister Barrow will not be running in the November election due to health reasons. The UDP currently holds 19 seats to the opposition People’s United Party’s (PUP) 12 seats. The PUP is headed by Johnny Briceno and is considered a center-left Christian Democratic party. 
The election is most likely to be driven by the state of the economy and the desire for a change of government, considering that the UDP has been in power since 2008. The economy remains in recovery since a recession in 2016, with real GDP expanding by 3.2 percent in 2018 and by an estimated 1.5 percent in 2019. Growth slowed down in 2019 due to severe drought experienced in the country.  Belize’s economic outlook, however, is challenging. As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) noted in December 2018: “Public debt remains elevated, at above 90 percent of GDP. Belize is vulnerable to weaker U.S. growth, which could impact tourism, to higher oil prices, and weather-induced natural disasters. Violent crime poses risks to growth, competitiveness, and macroeconomic stability.” 
Considering the IMF’s statement, key issues during this election cycle are expected to include economic growth, employment generation, government finances, and public safety related to the country’s high crime rate. With the current government having been in power since 2008, there could be calls demanding new blood run the country.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Parliamentary Elections)

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, one of the Caribbean’s longest serving prime ministers, has indicated that the elections will be held in December. Gonsalves’ center-left Unity Labor Party, or ULP, won the last election in 2015, winning eight seats to seven against the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP).  
One of the key issues in the Vincentian political arena is what some may see as the need for a change at the government’s helm. Gonsalves has served several consecutive terms as prime minister since 2001 and now is 73 years of age. To his supporters, he has been a steady presence, guiding the country through a lengthy period in the country’s life, raising the standard of living, pushing alternative energy, and hopefully creating a stronger economy. At the same time, his long tenure in office has raised questions over his behavior and when he will depart from the political scene and let someone else become prime minister. 
The NDP is led by Dr. Godwin Friday who claims that irregularities in the 2015 election prevented it from winning the ministership. The government has denied these allegations. For its part, the ULP government is likely to run on the theme of economic recovery, taking credit for a considerable pickup in growth from the tough years of 2016-2017 to 2.0 percent in 2018 and 2.3 in 2019. If the 2015 election is any indication, 2020 could be a close and hard-fought affair. 

St. Kitts and Nevis (Parliamentary elections)

In St. Kitts-Nevis the coalition Team Unity government under Prime Minister Timothy Harris, leader of the People’s Labour Party, presided over the economic recovery of 2016 to 2017 to a marked rebound starting in 2018 (see real GDP table). This period also saw improvements in government finances. Part of the reason for the improvement in the economy is the Caribbean country’s use of its Citizenship-by-Investment program. While this has brought in revenues to the country, it has also incurred international criticism over issues of transparency and disclosure as well as local questioning as to where all of the funds go.
The issues most likely to surface during the country’s election this year are the future viability of the economy, how the citizenship program is regulated, and public safety due to a high crime rate. The Team Unity coalition is made up of the People’s Action Movement (PAM), the People’s Labour Party (PLP), and the Concerned Citizens’ Movement. The opposition St. Kitts and Nevis Labour Party is headed by the leader of the opposition and former prime minister Denzil Douglas (he served in that capacity from 1995 to 2015).
Scott B. MacDonald is a non-resident senior associate at the Americas Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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Scott B. MacDonald