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Will social media and young voters decide outcome of St Vincent general election?

Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves and Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace
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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

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Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves and Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace

KINGSTOWN, St Vincent (CMC) — About a year ago, when he was asked about the role social media could play in deciding the outcome of general election in St Vincent and the Grenadines, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves adapted his usually dismissive attitude towards new media.

He said then that he has little or no time for Facebook and that his interaction with the Internet is largely limited to reading news and current affairs and journals.

But since then, Gonsalves, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, has evidently come to realise what digital media strategists Nerissa Golden and Ursula Barzey had long established while he was busy branding Vincentian cyber activists as “Internet crazies”.

In July 2014, Golden and Barzey, noting that more than 10 Caribbean countries and overseas territories were scheduled or likely to have elections before the end of 2015, warned political parties that not including a definitive social media strategy in their campaign could be disastrous.

But when he was asked earlier this month about the effect of social media in Wednesday’s general election, Gonsalves replied “social media, increasingly, plays a vital role in mobilising persons for elections and to vote for you”.


He, however, noted that while it is not the only medium, “it is a vital medium”.“And as you notice, we have a good social presence on social media,” Gonsalves said of his Unity Labour Party (ULP), which has used paid sponsored posts on Facebook and YouTube to spread its campaign messages.

“I wouldn’t be announcing to you to tell you that I have a Facebook chat at 6 o’clock if I didn’t think it was useful,” he said ahead of a  sessions interacting with potential voters on Facebook.

I want to engage persons, especially young people and professionals who tend to go on the social media,” said Gonsalves, whose Facebook page has since April 19 awoken from the hibernation it went into on December 14, 2010, four days after the ULP was re-elected for a third term by a single seat majority.

Political observers believe that young voters, many of whom are unemployed, could decide the outcome of the election in which the ULP is facing a challenge from at least three other political parties, including the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP).

A recent poll conducted by the Barbados-based Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES) found that as many as 58 per cent of the respondents said the “issues of greatest concern” to them this election are jobs/employment, the cost of living and the economy.

The rate of joblessness, especially youth unemployment, was made abundantly clear earlier this year when hundreds turned up for interviews for a few jobs at a fast food outlet. It was a scene that had earlier been repeated when many responded to job opportunities at another fast food outlet.

Among those who turned up seeking employment were high school and community college graduates.

The NDP, led by economist Arnhim Eustace, a former finance minister, has also taken to social media to spread its message.

Both Eustace and Gonsalves are targeting young voters in the hope of winning the December 9 poll.

“Fundamentally, the Unity Labour Party sees the youths not as problems to be solved. We see the youths’ solutions to the problems of our civilisation,” Gonsalves told a ULP youth rally on Saturday.

“We see the youths as the flowers of our civilisation, and the youth must be trained, socialised, empowered, developed, facilitated in that development to bare fruits abundantly,” he said, and accused the NDP of seeing young people as a problem.

But as he addressed an NDP rally the same night, Eustace said the party’s manifesto details initiatives aimed at improving the economy and decreasing unemployment.

“These include proposals for youth, sports, and culture,” he said, adding “I look forward, to the day we shall all usher in together, and the signs will be undeniable and prolific, young people will walk with shoulders high and make direct eye contact.

“They with prize information over rhetoric; answers over spit; women will take back their power, and say a loud ‘no’ to the compromises many in authority demand of them.”

Of the 89,527 people who are registered to vote, 11,904 registered between the period January 1, 2011 and November 23, this year. Political observers say many are first time voters.

The 2015 election campaign has been unlike any other, with the proliferation of social media allowing people, especially the youth, to follow the campaign in real time, strategise and hold discussions in real time.

Ironically, one of the biggest discussions on the social media to date has been a recording featuring a male voice having “phone sex” with a young woman.

While traditional and “mainstream” media have been cautious in their discussions, the relative privacy of social media, especially direct messaging services like Whatsapp, have allowed people here and abroad to have unencumbered discussions about the recording.

But while the ULP and NDP say that the scandalous recordings are not an election issue, on Sunday, a document began circulating on social media alleging that Gonsalves is the holder of a multi-million dollar bank account in Switzerland.

Both the ULP and Gonsalves have dismissed the document as fraudulent and the prime minister has ordered local law enforcement agencies to conduct an investigation, including seeking the assistance of the United States law enforcement authorities.

The ULP is hoping that voters will embrace the economic policies that Gonsalves have outlined if re-elected led by the opening of the EC$279-million Argyle International Airport next year, despite missing several completion target dates.

But the NDP contends that the Government has mismanaged the airport project with critics also pointing to the fact that the project had been a major election campaign issue in the 2005 and 2010 elections.

However, Gonsalves was pleased that the regional airline, LIAT, had successfully conducted a chartered flight announcing also that the Trinidad and Tobago government-owned Caribbean Airlines, which recently announced that it will no longer fly to London, will service Argyle.

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