Readings from my Teapot

No, I am not making a prediction on the outcome of the elections, but I am sharing some observations on the campaigns we are currently exposed to as we manoeuvre our way around New Providence. On my way to work this morning, I was looking at faces and symbols, lots of them. As I left home after the morning rush hour, I was going fast enough to not read the meaningless slogans on these posters, but I got a good feeling for which party dominated the postersphere.

Without actually counting them, my gut feeling says that, on the route I took, the FNM had approximately three posters for every two of the PLP, and the FNM’s posters were also – on average – larger than the PLP’s. However, this only shows that the FNM has, so far at least, spent more money on printing posters, and more energy on putting them up. It says nothing about how effectively these posters carry their message to the electorate.

In this year’s election, we have a third national party fielding a full slate of candidates. However, the DNA was markedly absent from the war of posters. On Shirley Street, I spotted a single DNA poster, and then I saw about two more as I drove past one of their constituency headquarters. Obviously, the DNA does not intend to persuade the voters through the erection of posters.

While overall, the FNM has put up far more posters on my way to work than the PLP, I did notice one difference that may be a strategic one. The FNM’s posters were somewhat evenly distributed along my route, whereas the PLP seems to have focussed their efforts more on some areas and less on others. This may suggest that the PLP believes that some constituencies, e.g. St. Anne’s or Montagu, may be unwinnable for them.

However, as posters are only a sign of parties spending money, I contemplated another very important element of political campaigns in The Bahamas: the public display of party allegiance by ordinary members of the electorate. With this in mind I started counting flags. On cars. While the FNM retains the lead, it is minimal. The PLP is almost as strong, whereas the DNA is a distant third.

This data was collected on a thirty-mile drive through nine constituencies on the island of New Providence: Bain Town & Grants Town, Centreville, Fort Charlotte, Killarney, Marathon, Montagu, Mount Moriah, St. Anne’s, and Tall Pines. This includes some traditional FNM stronghold, some traditional PLP strongholds, and – through Killarney especially – a main thoroughfare frequented by such a large number of drivers from all different backgrounds that it can be assumed that they are a representative sample of the Bahamian electorate.

Distribution of Political Flags on Cars in New Providence

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However, this still is not an attempt at predicting the outcome of the elections, as what is true for the posters remains true, to some extent, for people’s displays of party allegiance: you can only display those flags on your cars that the party can afford to have made. Unless the market were saturated with party paraphernalia, we are still left guessing how many more people would choose to display which flags on their cars. During my visits to the headquarters of all three major political parties earlier this week, I saw that the market is not yet saturated. There were no flags to be had at the time.

This chart above cannot be a prediction of the election results for another, more important reason: I did not count the cars that were not displaying any flags. There were too many of them. My parking lot at work, where there were easily forty cars today, only had three cars with flags. In my street, I cannot find a single car with flags.

These cars could be driven by FNM voters, PLP voters, DNA voters, or voters for independent candidates or fringe parties – or undecided voters, or non-voters. The 2010 bye-election in Elizabeth has shown that the number of non-voters can be very high, though I believe the reasons why so many registered voters chose not to exercise their democratic right have not been adequately analysed.

For years, both the FNM and the PLP have operated on the premise that the vast majority of Bahamians are hardcore supporters of one of these two parties, and that the election would be decided by whatever party succeeds in mobilising more of its supporters. The current campaign follows that same pattern, for both the FNM and the PLP largely avoid discussing politics and focus on celebrating rallies at which their base joins them in unpolitical rituals.

The advent of a third party, however, may yield some interesting results, because while the above may be enough to mobilise your base, it does not necessarily appeal to the swing vote. Furthermore, I am not convinced that either the FNM or the PLP accurately gauge the size of their base, because previous elections were essentially two-way races. In that scenario, both parties could not only count on their bases, but they could also count on the anything-but-the-other-party group.

As the two-party system has been with us for as long as I remember,* I suspect that many strategists in the established parties have become accustomed to counting the anything-but-the-other party group as part of their base, thus misjudging the true size of their base. Therefore, while it appears that the DNA’s base is indeed only a fraction the size of the other parties’ respective bases, a new formula has to be applied to this year’s election.

In a two-way race you needed 50% plus one vote to win in a constituency. The number of votes that most independent or third-party candidates got in the past was so small that it remains of negligible impact for this formula. In 2012, on the other hand, we have genuine three-way races, even if one of the contestants may currently be viewed as a distant third. It is well worth acknowledging that most cars do not fly flags.

In a three-way race, 33.4% of the vote could be sufficient to win in a constituency. In this reality, the question of how much of what has been the genuine base of the FNM or the PLP in the past, and how much has been the anything-but-the-other-party group now becomes tremendously important, because it could determine which party is going to be hurt more by the DNA, and it could make previously “safe” seats very interesting.

Nicolette Bethel offers this perspective: “I would argue that the real ‘base’ of both the FNM and the PLP has been shrinking over the past ten years as those people who were in on the original fight age and pass on. I would suggest that the number of people who have voted only for one party in their lifetime has also shrunk considerably, and that this may diminish what the two major parties can consider their ‘base’ even more.”

Finally, my teapot tells me that the established parties also misjudge the way young voters decide. Inherited party allegiance is also, thankfully, becoming a thing of the past, and young adults do not necessarily make their “x” on the ballot in the same place as their parents. Young Bahamians want answers and vision. Thousands of students at The College of The Bahamas do not want hotel or construction jobs.

My teapot tells me that this is going to be an interesting election.


* I was alive, but not politically conscious for the 1977 elections, in which the Bahamian Democratic Party became the official opposition and decimated the FNM to little more than a fringe party. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bahamian_general_election,_1977

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