by Larry Smith
North Abaco voters were unable to resist the blandishments of the new PLP government on Monday. The by-election was a replay of what happened when former Prime Minister Sir Lynden Pindling resigned in 1997. Voters in a small out island constituency elected a little-known freshman from the other side to replace one of the all-time heavyweights of Bahamian politics.
Just as South Andros voters repudiated Pindling, Abaconians disowned Hubert Ingraham - who had represented them for 35 years before stepping down in August - by rejecting his hand-picked successor two to one. This only goes to show that once considered out of power for good a politician becomes as irrelevant as yesterday's wet newspaper.
In time Ingraham may metamorphose into an elder statesman - whose experienced advice is sought after. But for now he is on the wrong side of history, and his North Abaco swan song will be recorded as one of a number of key by-elections that helped shape the political development of the modern Bahamas.
Dillett was born in Haiti to a French father and an African mother. He arrived here during the Haitian revolution and became a successful tailor and a member of the Committee for Free People of Colour. Elected to the legislature in 1833, he was barred from taking his seat on a technicality. But a special election the following year resolved the issue.
In 1946 Henry Taylor offered as a candidate for his native Long Island in a by-election held following the resignation of Gilbert Dupuch, brother of the late Tribune editor/publisher Sir Etienne Dupuch. Taylor lost that election to Alex Knowles, but went on to win the seat in the 1949 general election. Four years later - Taylor became one of the three founders of the Progressive Liberal Party.
In the aftermath of the 1958 general strike, the British began pushing for constitutional reforms in the Bahamas. This led to the abolition of the company vote, extension of the franchise to all men over 21 and the creation of four new parliamentary seats. By-elections were held in May 1960 to fill these new seats, and the opposition PLP won four new constituencies on New Providence.
But earlier that year the PLP's Warren Levarity also won a by-election on Grand Bahama against the UBP's Harold deGregory, following a recount and an appeal to the Elections Tribunal. According to Sir Arthur Foulkes, who was a PLP council member at the time (he is now governor-general), this marked a turning point for the progressive movement, although the PLP went on to lose the general election two years later.
In January 1967 the PLP, led by Lynden Pindling, came to power for the first time, with the help of Labour MP Randol Fawkes and Independent MP Alvin Braynan. But later that year a hotly-contested by-election was held in Crooked Island and Acklins, which the opposition UBP's Basil Kelly surprisingly won, even though the PLP had adjourned the House for seven weeks to fight the election aggressively.
Nineteen-sixty-eight was the year of the most celebrated by-election that was never held. Just 15 months after the first black government had been elected by a razor thin margin, the PLP MP for Shirlea - Uriah McPhee -died at the age of 42, putting Pindling in a quandary. McPhee's daughter Edith was a classmate of mine in Queen's College at the time.
Pindling decided to call a general election rather than risk everything on a single by-election. In the event, the Shirlea seat did switch to the UBP in 1968, but the PLP and Labour won 30,000 votes and 30 seats compared to just over 12,000 votes and 7 seats for the UBP. It was a 20 per cent swing to the PLP and marked the end of an era.
Within a year the PLP was facing a major split in its ranks, and several ministers left the cabinet voluntarily or otherwise. On a parliamentary no-confidence motion moved by Randol Fawkes in 1970, eight PLP dissidents led by former Education Minister Cecil Wallace-Whitfield voted against Pindling and re-styled themselves the Free PLP.
In 1971 these dissidents faced their first big test in a by-election on Andros occasioned by the death of PLP stalwart Clarence Bain. The election was won handily by a young Darrel Rolle for the PLP, against the UBP's Norman Aranha and the Free PLP's Roston Miller.
But this defeat led to the beginning of a historic realignment of Bahamian politics. The UBP's Geoffrey Johnstone resigned as opposition leader in the House in favour of Whitfield, who went on to form the Free National Movement, behind which most opposition forces coalesced. At the new party's first convention in April 1972, Whitfield introduced a recurring theme, declaring himself unable to live in a system that tolerated victimisation and intimidation.
The following year Sinclair Outten, the PLP representative for St Barnabas on New Providence, revealed that he was not a born Bahamian, but was actually a Turks Islander. He was quickly naturalised by the PLP government and easily won a by-election held in 1974.
The PLP's reputation was seriously tarnished by the drug wars of the 1980s, and the general election scheduled for June 1987 was being viewed as Pindling's most severe test. The death of Sinclair Outten had led to another by-election in St Barnabas in 1986, which most observers agreed was fraudulently won with a very low turnout by the PLP's Mathew Rose against the FNM's Edmund Moxey. An election court-ordered re-run took place in early 1987, but this time the FNM declined to contest the seat.
After winning (or stealing) the 1987 general election (depending on your viewpoint), the PLP was faced with another by-election in 1989, when Crooked Island MP Wilbert Moss was forced to resign after being convicted of attempting to bribe a judge. The seat was easily won by the PLP's Franklyn Walkine, but it marked the end of the governing party's winning streak.
In May 1990 Whitfield (who had regained leadership of the FNM from Kendal Isaacs after the 1987 general election) succumbed to lung cancer in a Miami hospital and Hubert Ingraham was elected party leader and appointed leader of the opposition two weeks later. The FNM under Ingraham won Whitfield's Grand Bahama seat in a by-election that same year, and went on to achieve a historic victory in the 1992 general election.
Despite Pindling's scornful condemnation of the new FNM administration as an "interim government", the FNM won an overwhelming victory in the March 1997 general election, taking 34 seats to the PLPs six. The victory was so great that concerns were raised about the future of our two-party democracy - even the Tribune feared the FNM could "lose its balance".
And within days of the election, Sir Lynden added to the despair by stepping down after 32 years as party leader, finally conceding that new leadership was needed to resurrect the PLP's fortunes. His South Andros seat was won in a by-election that September by the FNM's Ronald Bosfield against the PLP's Neville Adderley. This too marked the end of an era.
And that brings us back to the present, and the North Abaco by-election. Despite the number of seats it holds in parliament, the PLP did not win a majority of votes in the May 7 general election, and clearly it is trying to compensate for this by making a concerted effort to shift the political centre of gravity by almost any means necessary. Removing the Ingraham factor was their second order of business.
The PLPs first order of business is to take control of all the levers of power and influence in the country. There was a lot of fine talk by commentators on Monday night about Christie's great opportunity to change not only the constitution but the entire political culture of the Bahamas through a policy of inclusion, collaboration and consensus. But appointing ideologues, partisan relics and conflicted individuals to every key national post is hardly evidence of a constructive new politics.
To the contrary, the new government seems more interested in returning to the dark days of PLP hegemony, in the belief that this will ensure the continuance of their reign (as opposed to what happened in 2007). But we should all keep in mind that time travel is impossible, and we cannot go back to the future. The Bahamas has moved on, and those days of stultifying PLP supremacy can offer no guide for the issues and challenges that face us today
Let the grizzled relics collect their pensions and rest on the memories of the partisan and corrupt past. Bahamians today must look towards the future, and the younger leaders of both parties should be about building their own legacies. To remain on the present path is to move inexorably again towards stultification - which means that our national development will be crippled.
Lynden Pindling and Hubert Ingraham have gone from the scene. And many see Perry Christie as a figurehead who is about to go. So we agree with the commentators that it really is time for a new politics. And can we have some imagination for a change please?
Lastly, we should all remember that while the PLP may be on a roll now, it is always foolhardy to make predictions in politics. In politics events can change everything, a week can become a lifetime, and madness is the rule.