Perry Christie’s PLP won the 2012 general elections in The Bahamas. They will send 29 members to the House of Assembly, the FNM only nine. A landslide!
A landslide? Actually, a closer look reveals that the victory was not as convincing as the numbers above might suggest. The PLP won 48.7%, that is less than half, of the popular vote. In fifteen of the constituencies that the PLP won, they won these seats not because they won more than half of the ballots cast, but because they were first past the post. However, FNM and DNA (and independent candidates) combined had appealed to more voters there than the PLP did.
It’s not Easy being Green
If the DNA had not contested these elections, where would these votes have gone? Given their leader’s political genesis, one cannot help but suspect that the party drew more votes from the FNM than it did from the PLP. The DNA presented itself as the socially conservative FNM – pro guns, pro death penalty, pro marital rape; in the minds of their roughly 13,000 voters, as the better FNM. Like other parties in our history that were formed by disgruntled members of existing parties, many thus viewed the DNA as primarily anti-FNM and by extension as anti-PLP, and not as a genuinely new group with new minds and new ideas.
Many voters are disenchanted with our version of democracy, and feel disenfranchised when asked to vote, every five years, for the lesser of two evils. Many voters are hungry for truly modern ideas, rather than the reenactment of a decade old struggle. Yet, the DNA could not fully capitalise on this mood. The DNA peaked too early. After a strong start and an excellent media presence early on, the novelty had worn off by the time Ingraham rang the bell.
Without knowing the inside scoop, I still believe that the DNA’s campaign in 2012 was also underfunded and did not allow them to compete on par with the two established parties in terms of posters, freebies and grandiose rallies. On second thought though, I am tempted to suspect that the PLP’s and FNM’s campaigns were overfunded. Allegations of outright bribery aside, it would be interesting to see how much money these parties spent on their campaigns, and to translate that into a cost per vote calculation. In fact, the OAS observers’ preliminary report also made a case for the need of campaign financing disclosure.
Nonetheless, the third party idea keeps surfacing again and again. In 1977, the Bahamian Democratic Party (BDP) even relegated the FNM to third place. Since then, no third party has managed to repeat this success. Some of them were too extreme for the Bahamian electorate in one way or another. Others were too impatient, and were not prepared to invest more than one election cycle, or even just one bye-election, into the project. Their operatives often ended up joining forces with either the PLP or the FNM in the hopes of getting the seat in the House of Assembly they so craved, while at the same time demonstrating that, for them, it was not really about political principles.
The jury is still out on the DNA. Many voters who did not vote for the DNA were impressed nonetheless by how the party was prepared to engage the public in an ongoing dialogue. However, their campaign, which was quite modern in many ways, also gave the DNA a Family Island problem, and many candidates will not see their deposit money again. In MICAL, Jamarl Chea of the DNA scored three votes; despite MICAL being the smallest constituency, that is only 0.2% of the popular vote. In urban constituencies, however, many DNA candidates reached double digits, and Branville McCartney got a respectable 20.6% in a four-way race, despite Bamboo Town being also contested by an independent who, with 6.6% of the popular vote, scored far higher than the national average of 0.8% for independents and Bahamas Constitution Party (BCP) combined. The only constituency in New Providence where the DNA pulled less than 5% of the popular vote was Englerston, which saw a total of seven candidates competing for votes.
Now, the DNA needs to show if they can keep the interest alive despite the slump of interest in politics that has already set in, and that will be with us until the next politician decides to start playing with toy bells. The DNA’s members and candidates now have to decide whether they view a national average of 8.4% and a peak result of 20.6% as encouraging for 2017, or whether they view a national average of 8.4% and a low of 0.2% as discouraging beyond 2012. From an outsider’s perspective, we see that the DNA was potentially the spoiler in as many as fifteen seats won by the new governing party. We can hardly say that they did not impact this election.
Red Flags were Raised
Back in January, before the campaigns gained momentum, most observers of Bahamian politics suspected that the election was going to end the way it did, because headlines of murders, mismanaged road works and an economy whose recovery many did not feel, never bode well for any incumbent. Against these odds, the FNM ran a rather impressive campaign, which had many Bahamians hoodwinked into thinking that they may just turn it around.
Twenty years ago, the FNM won its greatest victory by promising “deliverance,” and by campaigning against Pindling’s monopolisation of power. For 2012, they changed the theme to “delivery” – by “Papa.” This was a big gamble from the start. Would the FNM campaign succeed in making us feel like children looking up to a father figure? Would the FNM campaign succeed in convincing us, like children, that this father would, somehow, magically, make all our problems disappear? They ran on Ingraham’s record of achievement. He solved problems in the past, he will do so again, was the message. He built a new straw market. He built a new airport. He built new roads. He, he, he.
This strategy was problematic from the start, and many voters, even traditional FNM voters, were deeply disturbed by this brazen paternalism. Brave Davis’ campaign nickname for Ingraham – “Papa Clown” – may not have hit the right note with many an undecided voter, but many could not help but be reminded of another politician in a nearby country who had also used the “Papa” brand during his reign. Many of his compatriots are now immigrants in our country, and his policies contributed greatly to this flow of people. This is not to suggest that there were real fears of torchbearing Tonton Macoutes raiding opposition strongholds before the elections amongst the population, but there was a genuine uncomfortableness with Ingraham’s over-inflated ego, and a campaign that celebrates a leadership style seems out of place in a modern democracy, in an open society.
The FNM’s strategy was also problematic, because many of the things that “Papa delivered” are of questionable value. The straw market serves a small clientele, and opinions are divided both about whether the 21st-century tourism product still requires a straw market, as well as about whether the FNM administration’s design is adequate. The new airport has also already raised some questions, as it already seems to be maxing out its capacity at times despite the sharp decline in air arrivals from the United States over the past couple of years, which some see as a design flaw. And finally, the roads: most of them are not finished, and the ones that are, frankly, are not the smooth, modern roads that the FNM had promised. Or maybe, they are not finished yet? In that case, see the previous comment.
And the FNM’s strategy was problematic, because the narrative that equates the PLP with corruption is losing its stickability. MonaVie may not have stuck in voters’ memories, but the Arawak Cay development still raises eyebrows, as do Bahamas Hot Mix’ profits in light of an out-of-control roadwork budget. At the last minute, the BPC scandal hit the local news media. At that time it was conveniently too late to have an informed discussion about oil exploration in The Bahamas, but it was not too late to repeat the “same old” story. It would appear that this time, though, the news did not reach the voter. Maybe it got stuck in traffic.
Finally, the FNM repeated a mistake that cost them the government ten years ago. Ingraham was elected in 1992 on the promise to run for two terms. By 2002, however, there was no front runner in the FNM that could sway the electorate, and Tommy Turnquest suffered a humiliating defeat, from which the party only recovered by getting Ingraham out of retirement. Now, in 2012, after the party’s deputy leader had retired, Ingraham asked the Bahamian public to elect him without a potential successor in place. Ingraham is 64 years old, he will be 69 for the next elections. 69 happens to be the average life expectancy for Bahamian men.
And still, and despite the DNA, the FNM pulled 42.1% of the popular vote, compared to the PLP’s 48.7%, making 2012 the closest defeat the FNM has ever suffered in its history. The only post-independence Bahamian election where the popular vote was closer was in 2007, when it was the other way around, and the FNM beat the PLP by 2.8%. In 1972, the FNM lost by 17.9%, in 1977 by 39.1%, in 1982 by 15.8%, in 1987 by 10.3%, and in 2002 by 10.9%. Who is calling this year’s 6.6% a landslide again?
Not all that Glitters is Gold
In their victory, the PLP would do well to remember all of this. No matter how huge their majority feels in the House of Assembly, they must remember that the majority of voters did not vote for them, but that, as a democratic government, it is now their duty to govern for this majority, too. They should also consider that the 2012 campaign shares some commonalities with previous Bahamian elections, and it may be suggested that, these elections were not won by a party, but rather lost by the other party. With such a slim mandate, a new government would be well advised to bear in mind that they will be held accountable by the electorate in 2017 – at the latest.
The FNM lost, but just like the FNM, the PLP, too, got DNA’ed. Their campaign was louder and brighter, but in comparison to the new kids on the block, it was also old-fashioned despite the alleged use of hologram technology. The PLP chose the traditional path of rallies and t-shirts. However, they did learn something from their mistakes in 2007, and chose to mount a forward looking campaign around the catchphrases “believe” and “invest,” instead of the negative “no turning back.” Of course, this time around they also had the advantage of being in the opposition at a time when there were a lot of problems they could blame on the government, whether justified or not.
Their Charter addressed a lot of issues that matter to concerned citizens. If it had not been a booklet of political promises, but a business plan presented for a loan application, any prudent analyst would most likely have rejected it, for it lacks attention to detail and remains vague about financing, but such is the nature of the game. Five years from now, however, they will not just be judged on the next charter, but also on the delivery of this current one. They will be judged on how their policies benefited the 48.7% of voters who voted for them, as well as the 51.3% who did not. For now, I wish them good luck, for the challenges facing our country are serious. As is good democratic tradition, though, a first evaluation of their performance will take place after the first 100 days. The 100th day of this government’s term in office will be 15th August, 2012.
Depending on Ingraham’s next move, however, a first judgement on the new administration may be passed sooner. If he, as announced, vacates his seat for the North Abaco constituency, a bye-election would have to be called. The remarks by Renardo Curry in this regard were rather unfortunate, and suggest a curious understanding of the democratic process. Nobody likes a sore loser, but, please, also be a good winner.
The elections delivered a slate of parliamentarians that could hardly be more unrepresentative of Bahamians if you tried. The vast majority of them are men (86.8%). Their average declared net worth is $2.5 million. Their average age is above 50. Most are lawyers.
As most female candidates ran on the FNM’s ticket, many of them did not win their seats, but even the FNM’s slate was lopsided. When in the aftermath of the elections, very few FNM veterans were left in the House, many suspected – and hoped – that Loretta Butler-Turner would be given a chance to represent Bahamians, but Bahamian women in particular, as leader of the opposition. Instead, her colleague Hubert Minnis secured that title for himself, for now. In a country where upwards of 80% of the graduates from the national tertiary institution are female, it is sad to see that in the political arena the patriarchy is alive and kicking.
Our House of Assembly is a peculiar representation of our people. In many ways, it still consists of elitist circles – different ones, but still circles – just like it did in the days of the Bay Street Boys, who also could not, not genuinely, relate to the ordinary citizen and their problems. The Bahamas is a demographically young country, and a diverse country. Our democracy should reflect that better.
In light of this, the parties’ lack of engaging the citizens in the democratic process, which culminated in all three parties ignoring an invitation to a debate, was not really a surprise. However, since the elections – because of the election – the Bahamian presence and activity on social networks has increased dramatically, the event serving as a catalyst. It stands to reason that as the global democratic discourse develops, the Bahamian people will not overlook that. It then stands to reason that Bahamian politicians, too, will have to engage a more empowered electorate if they want their votes. Re-tweeting and copying one another’s Facebook posts will not sway voters in 2017. Candidates will have to use social media personally. Then, they will have arrived where their voters were years ago.
Several observers have opined that our democracy has matured, and that us voting out two single-term governments in a row was a sign of that. I am not sure I can agree with that verdict, because it either means that we elected two poor governments into office in the first place, or that we made two foolish decisions in a row. For me, a sign of a maturing democracy would be a broadened base of public discourse, where more and more Bahamians not only find a way to voice their concerns, but find a fora where their voice is being heard, their questions answered, and their ideas considered.
If there was one sign about the 2012 general elections that I consider a sign of a maturing democracy, it is the fact that, for the first time, we invited election observers from CARICOM, the Organization of American States, and the United States of America to observe our democracy in action. I say this not because I have deep rooted doubts about the fairness of our elections and these observers put me at ease, but because I feel that we finally trust ourselves enough to demonstrate confidence in our democratic process. We can proudly say, “Come watch. We’ve got nothing to hide.”