by Larry Smith
If sip-sip is anything to go by, the governing Progressive Liberal Party is in turmoil as it prepares for the 2017 general election, severely wounded by the recent referendum debacle.
Dismayed by the low turnout and overwhelmingly negative results, party leaders are scrambling to avoid a catastrophic defeat like that suffered by the FNM after the 2002 failed referendum. But you wouldn’t know that by reading the newspapers.
As someone once wrote, put a ballot in front of citizens and they will focus whatever they feel strongly about onto it. It seems clear that, for many, the citizenship referendum had no relationship to their daily lives, so they said “no” with a high level of contempt for the subject, the process and the party in power.
The chief message was political in my view. And the only real difference from the 2002 referendum was that Perry Christie had the sense not to say (as Hubert Ingraham did) "whoever wins the referendum will win the election".
As the opposition Free National Movement tries to gain traction, we have had the spectacle of running battles in the press between MPs and the leadership, the curious intervention of resentful splitters who quit the FNM years ago, and a flaming public row among senior FNM figures who are not even involved in front-line politics.
And that is in addition to ongoing sniping from the minority Democratic National Alliance, which claims it wants a pre-election agreement with the FNM to fight the PLP - and seems to have no leadership issues of its own.
This column generally avoids divining political leadership struggles because it requires proximity to party insiders, and much of what they have to say is self-serving anyway. But I can offer some homespun observations, now that it’s obvious matters are coming to a head.
On the surface, there appears to be no significant ideological divide among the presumed PLP leadership contenders.
The traditionalist wing of the party is represented by Mr Mumble - otherwise known as Deputy Prime Minister Philip Davis. Alfred Sears offers a more nuanced political line, while Fred Mitchell presents himself as a rabid hardliner. All are lawyers in their 60s who rose to prominence during the first Christie administration (2002-07).
On the FNM side, Dr Hubert Minnis (otherwise known as Dr Malaprop) is a physician who was brought into the last Ingraham administration, and was one of the few ministers left standing after the party’s 2012 defeat. He was elected leader by acclamation in the dispirited days following Ingraham’s rushed resignation, with Loretta Butler-Turner as his deputy.
But since then, his political ineptness and failure to take advantage of PLP missteps has fueled growing dissatisfaction among opposition ranks. And the argument that it is too late to change the leadership is weakening by the day.
Critics say Minnis lacks the skills to manage the factions that make up the FNM coalition. And the result has been an ineffective opposition (both within and outside parliament). This is not a good place to be at the outset of a critical general election campaign.
In his budget address Monday, Minnis complained about "a firestorm of criticism from without and within.” But significantly, opposition MP’s do not point to any substantive policy differences. Rather, they argue that he has failed to take command of the party, despite their efforts to support him.
What is clear is that, in the aftermath of the government’s humiliating defeat in the constitutional referendum, the opposition should be energetically leveraging growing voter disenchantment, and rolling out detailed alternative policy proposals on key issues.
For example, simply criticising Parliamentary Commissioner Sherlyn Hall (who clearly mishandled the referendum polling) is not sufficient. It may be unclear whether Hall was politically directed, but as others have pointed out - if this is repeated in a hotly contested general election the risk of civil unrest is high.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Perry Christie (now in his 70s) has given no indication of any plan to step aside as PLP leader - despite fears among many colleagues that his political credibility is totally shredded. As former chairman Raynard Rigby said recently, the PLP needs to "reflect, analyse and readjust” to avoid a catastrophic loss at the polls next year.
“The PLP has to come to a final assessment as to (how) it's going to deal with this question of leadership,” Rigby said. “Hopefully the party will get it right."
But the issue of succession in Bahamian political parties has always been problematic. It is a process probably best described by Minnis’ own peculiar term - a quagmire of web.
Sir Lynden Pindling was forced into retirement by political defeat and illness, after 41 years as party leader and 25 years as the country’s maximum leader.
The previous maximum leader - Sir Stafford Sands of the defunct United Bahamian Party - had been forced into exile (where he died) by the PLP’s historic 1967 election victory under Sir Lynden’s leadership.
Sir Cecil Wallace-Whitfield, who led a breakaway faction of the PLP to form the Free National Movement in 1970, was himself forced out as opposition leader in the late 70s by a serious rupture within the FNM.
When Hubert Ingraham became FNM leader in 1990 and won the government two years later, he promised to serve only two terms. That led him to step down in favour of Tommy Turnquest before the 2002 general election (while remaining prime minister).
As it happened, the FNM suffered a crushing defeat in 2002 at the hands of Perry Christie, Ingraham's former law partner who had taken over leadership of the PLP after Pindling stepped aside in 1997 due to ill health.
Christie suffered his own humiliation in 2007, when Ingraham returned as FNM leader. But he stubbornly refused to accept any responsibility for the loss, despite PLP-sponsored surveys that said he was the main cause.
Handsomely re-elected in 2012 on a raft of unrealistic promises, Christie said he would promote new leadership and retire before the end of his current term, something which he has signally failed to do.
There is said to be a lot happening behind the scenes in PLP-land to move him on his way. But the FNM has been unable to exploit this churn, because it is so preoccupied with its own leadership issues.
At the moment, newcomer Dr Andre Rollins - whom Minnis brought over from the PLP - acts as a virtual one-man opposition. But tellingly, Rollins has said he will not run on an FNM ticket if Minnis is re-elected leader at the upcoming convention.
“I don’t have any dislike for Dr Minnis,” he told the Guardian, “but I want to see the FNM strengthened and well-positioned to take advantage of the fact that this PLP government needs to lose the next election."
At the FNM convention next month, Loretta Butler-Turner and Dr Duane Sands will vie to replace Minnis and his deputy Peter Turnquest, arguing that the country is in crisis and at a tipping point.
Butler-Turner, in a letter published Monday, says the country needs “a composed, self-disciplined, articulate, courageous, tough and decisive leader (with) the determination to overcome, the energy to act and the discipline to plan”.
As if answering her call, Minnis’ Facebook page portrays him as “a leader who stood under pressure, with steady and reliable performance, and sober practical judgement.” And Minnis argues that younger voters will “rock with doc.”
To sum up, there appears to be a major groundswell of antipathy towards the PLP, as evidenced by the referendum result. And unless Christie agrees to go with grace, there could easily be infighting. And on the FNM side, no matter who becomes leader, the party will remain badly divided just as the election campaign opens.
As a friend asked me recently: “Does that leave us with the DNA?"