by Sir Arthur Foulkes
The consultation on the Constitutional Commission’s Options for Change initiative has been rather tame. Even in the councils of the political parties there has apparently been little enthusiasm for debate.
Not much heat is likely to be generated until the Commission publishes its findings and make specific recommendations. Nevertheless, some interesting points have been put forward. In a recent letter to The Tribune Dr. Dexter Johnson advocated proportional representation for the Bahamas.
This is one of the questions proposed in Options:
“Should members of the House of Assembly be chosen on the basis of proportional representation (i.e., the number of members be determined by the percentage of votes polled nationally), as opposed to the first-past-the- post system (i.e., the party that wins the majority of seats)?
Dr. Johnson was obviously motivated not so much by a desire to respond to Options but to lament the return of CDR leader Dr. Bernard Nottage to the PLP and the failure of splinter parties to survive in the Bahamian political arena. He attributes this failure to the Bahamas Constitution which he claims is a two-party constitution that is hostile to third parties.
I do not agree that our constitution was designed to consign third parties to the trash heap but I concede the possibility that proportional representation could encourage the formation if not survival of third parties. The question is whether this would be a good thing for Bahamian politics and governance.
Dr. Johnson correctly states that the fledgling FNM survived after 1971 because it quickly became the official opposition. It is quite unlikely that the historical circumstances which produced that result are likely to occur again and so the future of splinter parties does indeed look dismal.
Even before majority rule in 1967, it appeared that there was a Bahamian consensus on the two-party system. Paul Adderley’s NDP which broke away from the PLP in 1965 failed to win a seat and folded its tent when Mr. Adderley returned to the PLP right after the 1972 election. Some of his colleagues had already joined the FNM.
Randol Fawkes was in and out of the PLP and eventually formed his own Labour Party. But even the great Sir Randol could not win a seat unless he was unopposed by the PLP.
Splinter party candidates and independent candidates have not done well at all since party politics came to the Bahamas in 1953.
Even in special circumstances such as existed in 2002, splinter party candidates all failed while several independent candidates succeeded. Only one independent won in a three-way contest with the two major parties.
It is the consensus, not the constitution, which militates against third party success. Our constitution clearly protects the right of Bahamians to join whatever political party they choose and to form as many parties as they wish.
In the articles providing for the appointment of Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition, the constitution also clearly anticipates the possibility of more than two parties being represented in the House of Assembly.
It is the consensus, I suggest, which has sustained the two-party system in the Bahamas. The principal reason for this is that there is no multiplicity of ideological and sectarian divisions in Bahamian politics.
With the exception of the oligarchic UBP and the socialist Vanguard – both now demised – there has been no party representing far right or far left political philosophies in the Bahamas. There is no appreciable constituency for either.
Hardly anything Dr. Nottage and his CDR proposed in the last three or four years would be philosophically objectionable to the PLP or the FNM. None of their ideas were so far out that they could not be considered by the two major parties.
Dr. Johnson argues that proportional representation “allows third party minority views to be expressed in parliament, reducing the risk that minorities will feel alienated and therefore reducing their need for terrorism and urban guerilla activities from frustration of minorities with the system.”
Proportional representation has been very useful in states with serious ethnic divisions and religious sectarianism. In some cases representation has been set aside for particular religious and ethnic groups.
Happily, the Bahamas does not have that problem and if we continue to treat all Bahamians as equal regardless of race, religion and ethnic origin we will never deteriorate to that stage. Politics based on race, religion or ethnicity would destroy us.
Despite all the recent talk about race, both the PLP and the FNM are more than willing to have white Bahamians as candidates. How and where they are placed should depend not on colour but on competence, talent and policy.
If Dr. Johnson is correct that proportional representation would facilitate third party representation in House of Assembly, that would not, in my view, be a good reason to have it.
The proliferation of political parties has brought grief to many democracies in countries with both directly elected constituency representation and proportional representation. Small parties have on occasion held the major parties to ransom.
Italy and France under the Fourth Republic are good examples of the political instability of countries with many parties represented in their legislatures. The Italians were notorious or changing governments numerous times in the course of a single year as quarrelling coalitions were patched together and quickly fell apart.
That is not a good thing for developed countries, and for a small developing country like the Bahamas it would be disastrous.
Perhaps the best argument for proportional representation in a small country like the Bahamas is that in the present system across-the-board voting swings could just about wipe out one of the major parties in the House.
I referred to this in a recent column and suggested that we consider appointing members of the Senate based on the percentage of votes won in an election.
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The return of Hubert Ingraham to the leadership of the FNM is being milked to the last drop by the PLP. It is true that in many third world countries there has been a tendency for leaders to stay too long instead of allowing new leadership to emerge.
But PLPs are the last people in the world to be making an issue of this and pointing fingers at others. It took them more than 40 years to get Lynden Pindling out of their blood.
Even after serious economic decline and revelations of rampant corruption by commissions of inquiry that would have shamed the devil’s imps, they still held on to Sir Lynden.
Even after he led them to two election defeats – one quite humiliating – they still held on to Sir Lynden.
It is not likely that those who have leadership ambition in the FNM will have to wait as long as Perry Christie had to wait for Sir Lynden to move over.