by Larry Smith
Under our constitution, the decision to call a general election is made by the prime minister, who advises the governor-general (who represents the monarch) to dissolve parliament. This gives the governing party a big political advantage.
We inherited this tradition from the British, where it is based on the 13th century premise that the monarch summons and dissolves parliaments. The five-year parliamentary term was set in Britain in 1911. For three centuries previously, the life of parliament had been seven years.
Our constitution says the governor-general may dissolve parliament at any time on the advice of the prime minister. Unless dissolved, parliament continues for five years from the date of its first sitting after the previous dissolution.
Since a prime minister has the power to choose the most favourable date, the timing of both British and Bahamian general elections has always been a cat and mouse game, providing much entertainment for the political class. However, this pastime ended in Britain last year, when the Fixed-term Parliament Act was passed.
But in the Bahamas, we are still playing the dating game. For some time now, the cognoscenti have been predicting an early election - first it was last November and then February. But Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said recently he always had a fixed date in mind.
The first sitting of the current parliament (which was elected on 2 May 2007) took place on 23 May 2007, so under the constitution parliament will automatically dissolve on May 23 this year, after which an election must be held within 90 days. This means the poll could theoretically be as late as August, although Ingraham is on record as saying he would not take advantage of that period.
In fact, the prime minister has narrowed the possibilities even further by confirming he will dissolve parliament before May 2 and after April 7. The 2007 election was called by Perry Christie on April 4, allowing for a four-week campaign. Current wisdom is that the election will be called on or soon after a big FNM rally at Montagu on April 9, with a similar campaign period. This would put the election in early May again.
The constitution also requires a parliamentary seat to be deemed vacant if the member "is absent from the sitting of the House for such period and in such circumstances as may be prescribed in the rules of procedure of the House." The rule states that a seat is vacant if a member is absent for a period of 90 days without leave from the Speaker.
According to the prime minister, North Andros MP Vincent Peet has not attended a meeting of the House since the end of November, and did not apply for leave, so his seat became vacant on March 1. Under the constitution, a bye-election must be held for a vacated seat within 60 days (i.e. by May 1) unless parliament is dissolved within that time, which does not seem to affect the overall calculation.
The main argument in favour of a fixed term is that it would promote electoral fairness by taking away a big tactical advantage from the party in power. With fixed term parliaments a prime minister also could not threaten his MP's with a snap election. However, fixing terms could prevent a general election from taking place when it may otherwise be seen as appropriate, leading to 'lame-duck' governments.
And fixed term requirements can also be circumvented. In 2008, the Conservative government in Canada ignored its own fixed term legislation, passed only the previous year. And in Germany, chancellors have contrived confidence votes in order to dissolve parliament mid-term.
Over a year ago (in January 2011), I answered a set of questions from Rogan Smith, associate editor at Love 97/JCN-TV and the Bahama Journal. Her questions, sent to a variety of commentators, focused on the upcoming political season and I think it is worthwhile at this time to reproduce them - together with my answers, which hold up rather well if I may say so.
Rogan: Given that we are just a year away, how do you see the 2012 general election going, considering that the government has made a lot of moves that many oppose? For example, relocating the container port, restructuring ZNS, selling BTC.
Tough Call: I think the magnitude of opposition to these initiatives is wildly exaggerated. There are good reasons, and wide support, for privatising BTC and moving the port. The downsizing of BTC and ZNS obviously impacts some families negatively (despite the generous separation packages), but the alternative is for the rest of us to pay free riders forever. At some point, realism must prevail. The port controversy was purely political - artificial in fact. The BTC controversy is largely political. In other words, these are not necessarily fundamental problems for the government, which is acting on its platform and mandate by finally implementing things that should have been done many years ago. As with the Obama administration, the election outcome will depend on how well the government can communicate its achievements while fending off opposition distortions.
Rogan: Has the PLP been an effective opposition over the past four years? Or does it simply react to every decision the government makes.
Tough Call: I have a serious problem with the nature of opposition politics in this town - no matter which party is in power. There is far too much reliance on hyperbole, propaganda and character assassination. It is very difficult for ordinary citizens to pick out the strands of reality from the basin of bullshit. And it is so easy for lazy politicos to rely almost entirely on talking nonsense.
This is what the press is for. Our mission is to help citizens understand what is going on and not to simply regurgitate one BS story after another. This is what I try to do in my columns, which are really news features, although it is not always easy to acquire pertinent information.
Rogan: Do you think the Bahamians who lost their jobs over the FNM's term might vote for the PLP next year? Will the tough economy make the FNM's fight to hold onto power more difficult?
Tough Call: That is the conventional wisdom. Of course, the conventional wisdom in 2007 was that the PLP would benefit from a booming economy. In the US, Barack Obama's 2012 re-election chances are said to be based on the level of unemployment just before the election - 8% or thereabouts would produce a win, like Reagan in 1984.
In our case, the FNM should have the wind at their backs by the time the campaign begins. The new seaport and airport will be operational, roadworks should be substantially over, tourism will have recovered somewhat and the economy will be growing, albeit slowly.
The fly in the ointment is likely to be a significant rise in oil prices, which is both a good and a bad thing in my view. Good in the sense that it will spur the necessary move towards alternative energy technologies, but bad in the sense that it will raise the cost of living.
Rogan: How would you assess the FNM's performance over the past four years? Has the government done enough? Can it do more?
Tough Call: This administration has made some tough decisions, launched some major projects, and passed some groundbreaking legislation. Considering the inertia that most politicians succumb to in the Bahamas while in office, it is a pretty good record in my view.
Rebuilding the straw market after six years, moving the port after decades of delay, redeveloping the airport, negotiating a final Baha Mar deal, completing major roadworks, building new judicial facilities, launching the downtown revival, passing the Planning & Subdivisions Act, and totally reforming the telecommunications sector - these are no small achievements, especially in the face of the worst economic recession in 60 years.
As to what more could have been done, my preference would have been for the government to appoint a non-partisan economic council of experts and elders to come up with ideas and proposals that could help us through the recession and reform our economy.
I also believe the government should initiate the formulation of a consensual national development plan by outlining the issues and inviting public input. And I am convinced that we could have been much further ahead in the application of alternative energy technologies and policies.
Rogan: Was the Elizabeth bye-election a good indicator of what's going to happen in 2012?
Tough Call: I am not an expert on the nuts and bolts of constituency elections, but I note that more than a third of those registered did not vote in February 2010, and the constituency was evenly divided in the 2007 election. The big question is, who stayed home and why? Both sides have different stories to tell about this, but I regard the 2010 result as inconclusive and hope that polling procedures will be clarified before 2012.
Rogan: What should the candidates be doing now to get a strong footing in the upcoming election?
Tough Call The candidates know better than me how they should be working their constituencies. As for the parties, I think the governing FNM should be seeking to co-opt some of the rhetoric that is going the rounds by extrapolating on existing sectoral plans to produce a coherent national development strategy, inviting public input and collaboration, especially from the intelligentsia. I agree with Darron Cash about the need to connect big picture-wise with young people and swing voters, on whom the election will turn.
The opposition PLP also needs to seek the support of swing voters and independents, and that can't be done by talking hardline nonsense all the time. It is not that difficult to be frank, honest, straightforward and constructive. Save the noise, bluster and hyperbole for something that's really serious. Your base will love you anyway.
Rogan: Do you think any of the smaller parties have a shot at making a real impact in the coming election?
Tough Call: The electoral high point for candidates not drawn from the two major parties was the general election of 2002, when they collectively won 7.5 per cent of the vote. But that was due largely to the fact that the PLP refrained from fielding candidates against several independents (all former FNM incumbents).
And despite all the talk of a surge in support for new parties at the time of the Elizabeth bye-election, the venerable Bahamas Democratic Movement, the newly-formed National Development Party and the idiosyncratic Workers Party won only 209 votes collectively - about 4 per cent of the total cast. So my first observation is that support for splinter candidates remains negligible, and is consistent with past experience.
There are no small party representatives in our parliament, despite the fact that the Bahamas Democratic Movement has been slogging away since 1998. The Coalition for Democratic Reform lasted five years without winning a seat before disbanding ignominiously before the 2007 election. Before that, the National Democratic Party (a breakaway faction of the PLP) was wiped out at the polls in 1967.
Dr John Rodgers, Dr Dexter Johnson and others believe the time is ripe for a third party success. Rodgers argues that a new party could win outright, or at least enough seats to force a coalition in the next election, if it has the right mix of candidates and $5 million in campaign funding. Well, that's a big "if". And $5 million is a lot to invest in an unknown entity with no track record. It's easy to announce a new party, but the logistical issues are enormous, and we probably don't have enough attractive, willing and capable candidates to support a multi-party system anyway.
Rogan: Of the two major parties, which does a better job at appearing more unified?
Tough Call: I see no real difference. It depends on the circumstances of the time. Unfortunately, Bahamians traditionally have a hard time speaking their mind without engaging in destructive arguments and personal attacks.
Rogan: What ultimately will win this election - money, strategy, organization?
Tough Call: All of the above. But hopefully, the result will turn on support for the party that we consider to be the best stewards of the country's finances and future, and not the party that shouts the most demagogic slogans.
Rogan: Do you find that most Bahamians vote with emotion and not intellect, as some have suggested?
Tough Call: The conventional wisdom is that each major party has a base of about 45% of the electorate and there is a 10% swing vote of independents that decides the outcome. These can be well-educated professionals, young people, the white minority and the Haitian-Bahamian minority. The base may vote emotionally, but the swing voters approach things differently.