“Politics changes when people can’t pay for their home mortgages and can’t afford medical care and can’t send their kids to school. ... It is such a humiliating blow to be the head of a family and be unable to work and provide, that people don’t respond entirely rationally all the time. It can explode in politics in a hard-to-understand way.”
This was the view of former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, a veteran politician and observer of politics and the vagaries and vicissitudes of political fortune. That economic distress is typically decisive in deciding the outcome of an election becomes even more so in periods of greater economic turmoil.
In a 2009 column Front Porch noted: “While the adage, ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ was popularized by Bill Clinton during his successful bid for the U.S. presidency in 1992, a country’s economic situation is typically a central election issue, even more so during economic crises.
“No less a figure than British Prime Minister Winston Churchill learned this lesson following the humiliating defeat of his Conservative Party soon after it led an all-party coalition government that secured victory for Great Britain in World War II.
“It was Britain’s first general election since 1935, elections having been suspended until there was an Allied victory in the war. Held just months following Victory in Europe Day (VE Day), the 1945 election saw a return to normal party politics.
“Months before the election, Churchill’s approval rating stood at 83 percent with the Labour Party given poor odds for victory. After the opinion polls gave way to the election poll, the Conservatives lost nearly half of its members in parliament...” While voters appreciated Churchill getting them through the war, they turned to Labour during a period of continued rationing and great economic anxiety.
After an election, the winning side is lauded for its brilliance while the losing side is derided for its missteps. The reality is typically more mixed. Campaigns make a difference. But public relations alone rarely win elections, especially in light of the daily lived reality of voters and long-held perceptions.
Moreover, with the size of our electorate and the small number of voters per constituency, margins make a difference, especially in the last two elections where neither of the major parties has garnered 50 percent of the popular vote.
The role of the DNA, the personas of Perry Christie and Hubert Ingraham, crime, the influence of money, campaign and communications strategies, mistakes made by the incumbent Administration, among others, all made a difference individually and collectively in terms of the number of seats won by the PLP and the FNM. Still, the underlying factor was the economy.
The Ingraham administration did not buck the global trend. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French President in 30 years to lose re-election. In Jamaica, the fresh and youthful face of Jamaican Labour Party Leader Andrew Holeness was not enough to help the JLP retain office after one term.
During that term, the JLP concluded a historic debt agreement with the IMF and cut violent crime nearly in half, an extraordinary accomplishment that won universal praise within and outside of Jamaica. Yet, Portia Simpson Miller, the veteran politician and Leader of the People’s National Party, returned to office riding the wave of economic distress and anxiety.
In Belize, Prime Minister Dean Barrow and his United Democratic Party (UDP) barely bucked the trend, almost losing to the People’s United Party (PUP). Barrow called an early election to take advantage of deep divisions and a leadership vacuum within a PUP still tainted by the scandals and corruption associated with the administrations of former PUP Leader and Prime Minister Said Musa.
On the eve of the general election, two of the PUP’s stars, one a possible future leader, declined to run sending the party into turmoil. One of the PUP’s candidates was disqualified from running for the lower House because she held dual citizenship. And yet, Barrow held onto office with a mere three-seat margin reduced from a sizeable majority.
President Obama is also at risk, ever more so if U.S. economic recovery slows, jobs are added at a slower rate than expected, along with other factors such as higher gas and home heating oil prices this coming winter.
When he was defeated in 2007 with less than 50 percent of the vote, then outgoing Prime Minister Perry Christie claimed that the FNM did not have a mandate to govern. Clearly that was political boilerplate meant to appease his supporters.
While the PLP enjoys a landslide of seats but not of the popular vote, Mr. Christie and his party have a mandate to govern. Mr. Christie knows, following his 2002 victory and 2007 defeat, that a landslide can easily turn into a slippery slope. Having failed to win the popular vote in 2012 he is even more cognizant of how the numbers can easily turn around.
But it would be churlish of FNMs or those who did not vote for the PLP to wish for the failure of the Christie administration. The country needs him to succeed especially in the areas of the economy, jobs and crime. Only the most irresponsible would have no problem erecting billboards at highly trafficked areas advertising the number of murders on what is now the PLP’s watch.
Because of the nature of the times, the PLP will enjoy a brief honeymoon, and its “window of opportunity” to blame the FNM and Hubert Ingraham will be just as brief. The performance and political problem for Mr. Christie is the high level of expectations which he raised dramatically during the campaign.
Fulfilling high expectations during normal times is a difficult balancing act. During unprecedented times it is like juggling a myriad of objects which keep growing in number while navigating a high wire, backwards, with no net and partially blindfolded.
While the PLP has a mandate to govern, it does not have a licence to give vent to the endless settling of scores, victimizing opponents, the cavalier cancelling of contracts, and other mindsets and actions which can quickly erode the support of voters who are decidedly in the mood for getting on with the people’s business.
This is especially true of younger voters who are not as aligned to any of the major parties as their parents and grandparents. In many ways this is a new day in Bahamian politics. Those politicians who fail to understand this will learn the old fashioned way, i.e. at the ballot box.
Mr. Christie has been given the proverbial rare second chance in political life. How well he uses or squanders this opportunity will determine his legacy, and more importantly, the good of the nation.