The issue of the timing of General Elections
The late Lord Jenkins, former Home Secretary and the Deputy Leader of the British Labour party in the early 70s once said, 'Almost all elections that are lost in Britain by the Prime Ministers are thought to have been held on the wrong date'. Invariably the choice of an election date may well be the most important single political decision taken by a Prime Minister under this Westminster model. PMs are not obligated to wait five years in Dominica and may call an election whenever they feel and think 'the time is right'. When they think economic conditions are excellent and their popularity suggests it is the most advantageous time for them to win and reelection is a sure bet? This is referred to as 'political surfing'.
Despite the apparent importance of this decision, political scientists have done little to explain when elections are called and how and why this timing affects electoral outcomes and subsequent economic performance. Such arguments may not hold too much water because assumptions and arguments may be made on the premise that the electoral outcome is simply an expression of relative support for the government at the time the election is called.
There is no conception thus far which strongly indicates that the timing of an election influences the election outcome beyond its being chosen when the government looks at its best. But an early or snap election is often a strong signal that PMs do not expect conditions to be as rosy and favorable for them as in previous elections. Therefore, the signal of early and unanticipated elections can cause voters to reevaluate their assessment of their governments. Unfortunately, leaders are unable to completely hide their impending decline since the very act of preempting the decline with an early election most likely suggests that the government has something to hide.
In the case of Dominica where elections are not due until May 2015, the current PM, Roosevelt Skerrit, has been indicating and hinting on numerous occasions that elections will be held soon and very soon. He made that proclamation in March 2013, again this year before a big party rally in the coastal village of St. Joseph and recently at the September 11, meeting in Lagoon. It is like he has the elections date in his back pocket like a Credit Card and acting like theboy who shouted 'wolf, wolf' in Aesop's fable. This behaviour is disrespectful, unprecedented and mocks at Dominica and Dominicans. But has anyone of Skerrit's operatives risk telling him that the silly joke is on him?
But by waiting and keeping the nation in suspense Skerrit risks having his popularity undermined by policy and program failures especially today when the 'Treasury' is doing his undeclared campaigning. Is he waiting for those contracts which he gives out on a daily basis like they are going out of style to bear fruits before he calls the election? Some say it is too blatant, 'in your face' and it might be too little too late. But by 'surfing' and flirting with the election date, Skerrit is appears less confident about his chances of retaining power.
That is also evidenced by the fact that the Opposition UWP Team Dominica has been gaining steady momentum and has employed a very effective ground and airwaves campaign in Dominica and a robust social media campaign targeting the Diaspora. The plan is that the Diaspora community far and wide will influence their families back home on the choice to make at the ballot box. Also unconfirmed reports say that Labour's own internal polling by a Barbados firm shows that it has lost significant territory and support.
A pervasive feature of the Dominica's political system is the shortness of campaigns in the recent election cycles when the official election date is announced. This causes extreme hardship on the opposition due to limited resources. This was the case with Rosie Douglas's Labour's campaign in 2000 and UWP's in 2009. The opposition generally has a short time in which to adopt a policy platform, prepare a manifesto, find candidates for each seat, and organize an effective and grassroots campaign.
This dilemma between marshalling resources and being prepared becomes easier to resolve as the statutory five year limit approaches, since an election becomes inevitable. Yet, early in the electoral cycle, the opposition's preparedness is often lacking due to financial and other realities. But not this time as the UWP-Team Dominica and its leader Lennox Linton are double vigilant and prepared when and if a snap or early election is called.
The ability of Prime Ministers to call elections when desired makes it hard for the opposition to prepare. If the opposition uses its resources to prepare a manifesto and prepare a campaign too early, then the incumbent can simply postpone the election by making no announcement, allowing the opposition's campaign plans to fall into obsolescence. At the other end, with the entire official campaign period typically only about a month long, there is precious little time for the opposition to prepare a manifesto, a campaign, and work out policy positions on which to run for office.
The opposition then faces a huge dilemma. If it spends too much too early, then the incumbent holds off and fights a financially strapped opposition later. If the opposition spends too little, then it risks being too unprepared to mount a credible campaign against the government. Of course at the end of the term, this dilemma becomes easier to solve since an election becomes inevitable and the government loses the element of surprise. But whenever the elections are called it will be up to Dominicans to vote with either their heads or their hearts.