People tend not to trust politicians. For example, a 2017 YouGov poll conducted in the United Kingdom found that only five percent of respondents trust politicians’ opinions when they talk about their field of expertise. Their consistent low rating is due primarily to the self-interest, corruption, poor performance, egregious behaviour, and so on of too many politicians, and it is a reflection not only of the politicians but also voters. Nevertheless, politics and politicians are vital to governing the Virgin Islands.
A general election is constitutionally due in the VI no later than the summer of 2023, and it can occur earlier if the incumbent government calls a snap election as allowed under the Constitution. It seems unlikely that the government will call a snap election. Nonetheless, for the serious and savvy political aspirant, a snap election should not be a surprise considering the conditions on the ground.
Indeed, political aspirants should anticipate snap elections, for they can provide an advantage for an incumbent government. Consequently, a specific date for each election is needed to level the playing field, as is the practice in the UK. The VI’s new Constitutional Review Commission perhaps can add this to its long list of needed recommendations.
Additionally, the CRC needs to address the glaring democratic deficits in the current Constitution.
Nonetheless, this commentary is about political campaigning in the VI. I started writing it before the release of Sir Gary Hickinbottom’s Commission of Inquiry report and the arrest of some senior VI government officials. I had to adjust it after those events. Today, the COI is dangling over the VI like the sword of Damocles. And consistent with the agreement between the National Unity Government and the UK, it will influence the political campaign and governing for at least the next two years.
Nonetheless, political aspirants should proceed with all due speed with their campaigns. The election winds are quietly swirling, the temperature is rising, and the fever level is rising and spreading. Several candidates have already pitched their hats into the political ring and are ready for battle. Others may be waiting for the election campaign pistol to fire before joining the fight, perhaps not wanting to show their hand and peak too early.
Political parties and independent candidates in the VI typically used a manifesto to put forth a series of ideas, opinions, positions and views that they wanted to implement if successful at the polls. A political manifesto is similar to a policy position platform. The question is how influential political manifestos are, their current relevancy, how closely they are followed, and so on.
Many political campaigns in the VI start too late to be effective. Serious campaigns should start months, if not years, before a scheduled election date. Pursuing elected office is, in essence, a sales job. It takes time to motivate voters to buy into a message. Candidates must try to convince voters that the choices offered are more cost-effective, practical, and attainable than competitors’ offers. Politicians are sales agents (some may attribute other names to them) who voters interview to determine who represents them in the House of Assembly. As such, they must be an integral part of the community, not just live in the community. Serious politicians must be fully committed to the serious game of politics. They must be more than election-season political aspirants.
Too many politicians discover or rediscover parts of the community during election time and may be viewed as opportunists, playing politics for a vote. Many modern technological tools, such as television, radio, Facebook, other social media platforms, and so on are available to communicate the campaign message to voters. However, the traditional ground game — wearing out tennis shoes knocking on doors to have face-to-face discussions with voters — is still the most effective campaigning mode in the VI. The VI is a small community, and political aspirants should be able to engage with most voters personally in a district and even territorially. Retail politics must be the friend of every politician.
Critical national issues
The VI should be farther down the growth-and-development road than it is. It has had the means and opportunity to be farther down the growth path, and it is not too late, but the window of opportunity is closing fast. Consequently, whatever government is elected will have an arduous task and must have an effective plan of action to substantially attack the myriad of critical issues and crises. Undoubtedly, no government will have the resources to address all the problems in either one or two terms. This situation highlights the urgent need for a structured, voter-approved national development plan to address longer-term issues. There are no excuses for not picking the low-hanging fruit.
The following is a list of issues the new government will have to address, in no particular order: health and safety; education enhancements; economic deepening, strengthening, and diversification; agricultural production and food insecurity; natural resources and environmental resources management (including in the 200-mile economic exclusive zone and the 12-mile territorial sea); skyrocketing cost of living; constitutional review and modernisation (removing and improving upon democratic deficits while seeking more self-governing authority); internal security and public safety (including police, fire and ambulance services); disaster preparedness; stopping violent and property crimes; judicial improvements and strengthening; governing reform; operations, maintenance and capital budgeting; labour and immigration; the civil service retirement unfunded liability; energy and public works programmes; housing; physical infrastructure such as electricity, water, wastewater, stormwater, ports, roads and transportation; social services; sports and recreation; history, heritage, customs and culture preservation; tax policy; and so on.
The list is long, and it may seem to suggest that issues in the VI are in a critical state. The needs are significant, exceeding resources, capacity and capability. Consequently, every party and each individual candidate must offer a structured strategy for attacking these issues with a coherent plan of action and milestones, as well as funding sources.
It is a campaign staple for politicians to overpromise and often underdeliver. It is a truth in politics that if a candidate doesn’t promise anything, it is likely that they will not get elected. It is easy for politicians to meet voter demands by overpromising (some may call it lies), for when the chickens come home to roost, they will be long gone, and the problems and repercussions will have to be dealt with by their successors. Politicians generally will not give voters a hard, strong dose of the medicine of truth, preferring to procrastinate and postpone unpopular policies to win elections. In the modern era, standing for election is a contest in packaging, advertising and spinning.
Nevertheless, the voters are responsible for weighing and assessing all the information provided and then deciding. The voters, the press and so on are the interviewers, and they must get persistently engaged and ask the right probing questions and demand answers. Every proposal, project and so on should generate a series of how, what, when, where and why questions, including how much it will cost, where the money will come from, what is the impact on the economy, what is the effect on the budget and taxes, what is the timeline for the project, and so on. The people of the VI must demand description, discussion, debate and decision.