by Sir Arthur Foulkes
Last week I outlined the events leading to majority rule on January 10 1967, mentioned some of the circumstances and personalities involved and promised to discuss this week the meaning of majority rule and how it was consolidated.
I told readers that this discussion must necessarily be brief and therefore run the risk of being inadequate. I referred to the electoral system which remained deeply flawed up to that time despite a number of reforms including universal adult suffrage in 1962 but some readers wanted more information on this point.
The political leadership of the Bahamas has always recognized the difficulty in achieving equivalence of constituencies in an archipelagic country like ours. Our constitution allows for this but development, improved communications and local government should now make feasible something nearer parity.
The outrageous disparity and jerrymandering which still existed in 1967 can be easily illustrated.
The number of registered voters in the New Providence constituency of Killarney was 2,624 while in the out island constituency of Rum Cay and San Salvador the number of voters was only 298. Both elected one member to parliament.
Elwood Donaldson was elected for the PLP in Killarney. The PLP did not bother to contest Rum Cay and San Salvador so Roy Solomon was returned unopposed for the UBP.
There were also huge disparities between out island constituencies. Long Island with 1,484 registered voters had two seats, won by Donald d’Albenas and Peter Graham for the UBP. Grand Bahama had 1,444 but only one seat, won by Maurice Moore for the PLP. Some constituencies, like Abaco, had three seats.
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The great significance of 1967 was that after years of struggle by many progressive persons and groups, the back of the old oligarchy was finally broken and real democracy came to the Bahamas.
This was unique because many former colonies could boast of independence but not democracy, and older countries could hardly say exactly when they became democracies.
Journalist Fareed Zakaria argues in his book, The Future of Freedom, that at the beginning of the twentieth century “not a single country had what we would today consider a democracy: a government created by elections in which every adult citizen could vote.”
Great Britain had been painfully working towards democracy but was not yet quite there. For one thing women could not vote.
The French Revolution late in the eighteenth century resulted in a long period of instability and strife including the infamous Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic dictatorship.
In the New World the United States had not yet extended the franchise to women and the black minority was still brutally oppressed by the white majority.
Mr. Zakaria makes an important distinction between liberal and illiberal democracy. The administration of US President George Bush is struggling with this problem today in Iraq. Majority rule alone does not ensure that there is democracy since the majority in a particular country can vote for an oppressive theocracy or an ethnic tyranny.
Majority rule is an inelegant expression and an inadequate description. It is absolutely indispensable to democracy but it is not enough. Without the guaranteed civil rights of the individual and of minorities – racial, political and religious – majority rule can become a tyranny.
Democracy, once achieved, is not like an inanimate trophy to be placed on a pedestal, but a living thing to be constantly nurtured and protected.
The principal architects of the quiet revolution of 1967 were intent on supplying the missing ingredient of majority rule but they were equally determined to achieve those other objectives without which there can be no real democracy.
They envisioned a Bahamas where all citizens would have the right to join the political party of their choice without fear of victimization, where membership in a particular party did not bestow special privileges and entitlements on any citizen, and where the right to dissent would be sacrosanct.
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The struggle of African leaders to rid their continent of imperialist domination had been an inspiration to some of the architects of majority rule.
One of the great African liberators was the brilliant and charismatic Kwame Nkrumah, but he quickly turned Ghana into an authoritarian one-party state and created a personality cult around himself. The Osagyefo was ousted by a coup d’etat while on a visit to China and ended his days as an exile in neighbouring Guinea.
Some of the architects of majority rule in the PLP were bitterly disappointed and were determined that the Bahamas would not go down that road. They were determined that democracy would be consolidated and that majority rule would not be a cloak for dictatorship.
In the face of the so-called “leader movement” which sprang up in the PLP and growing intolerance for those in the party who had contributed to the change and wanted to contribute further, Cecil Wallace Whitfield challenged the PLP in convention in October 1970:
“… Should we now bury all those valiant heroes who braved the noonday sun and who bore the heat and burden of the day which led to our emergence from virtual slavery?
“Do you, brothers and sisters, believe that we can or that we should? Is the strength of our party not firmly rooted in the past, in its early struggles and its eventual success and particularly in the brotherhood and understanding and courage of all those outstanding Bahamians who willingly risked all for their people and their principles?
“Brothers and sisters, should their role and consequently the role of all of you who supported them be oblivion? Was their service to the party and to the Commonwealth insignificant or should their dedication and wisdom and fortitude, and humanity, and vision, not remain as a permanent source of inspiration to us in the future, in the trials and tribulations which face any and every nation?”
As it turned out, Sir Cecil’s challenge was not as premature as some might have thought. The poison of intolerance was already widespread in the PLP and the concept of collegiality was in serious danger.
So Sir Cecil and others who had, only a few short years before, contributed to the glory of January 10 1967 were now to be beaten up in broad daylight and publicly condemned as traitors!
Obviously, more sacrifice was required of those “valiant spirits” who had flared up previously, and that sacrifice was again freely made to consolidate and to guarantee the survival of a healthy two-party parliamentary democracy in the Bahamas.
This transition was facilitated when Geoffrey Johnstone, a visionary and perceptive political leader, grasped the full meaning of what was happening and offered, much to the chagrin of certain diehards, to disband the rump oligarchy in favour of the new politics.
Sir Geoffrey understood that from that day there had to be a governing party and an opposition, both reflecting the reality of the Bahamas, both with a black majority and with black and white Bahamians free at last to join and support the party of their choice in a democratic Bahamas.