by Larry Smith
As we head into the second month of 2017, the political battle lines for the upcoming general election are becoming clearer.
The old guard of the PLP (and by old we mean geriatric) confirmed their mafia-like grip on the party at the first convention allowed to to be held in seven years. They are doubling down on promises and threats as the campaign begins.
The Minnis wing of the FNM bumbles along with business as usual, and no apparent strategy or plan, confident in their faith that the government will simply fall into their hands no matter what they do or don't do.
And those seven FNM parliamentarians who believed Minnis lacks political skills are now on an exposed ledge, figuring out how to move forward.
Meanwhile, the power-hungry DNA jackals are nipping at the heels of both legacy parties, even as ‘We March’ activists seek to concentrate popular outrage at the status quo.
Added to this complex pot are untried groupings like the United Peoples Movement, formed by ex-PLP MP Greg Moss and labour leader John Pinder.
Dr Hubert Minnis, who remains leader of the “official” FNM although he was deposed by his fellow MPs, recently likened PLP leaders to “drowning men clutching at straws”.There can be little doubt that the governing party will try to leverage any confusion in the general electoral process as much as they can. And with the opposition distracted and divided into warring camps, they will have ample opportunity.
In response, Prime Minister Perry Christie called Minnis a bit player in “an impossible position” who should sit small in order to hide his political inadequacies.
In the view of DNA leader Bran McCartney, Christie heads the worst government ever, yet the FNM has been unable to mount an effective opposition under Minnis’ leadership - an analysis that cannot be disputed by any reasonable observer.
In contrast, McCartney praised Loretta Butler-Turner as a “history-maker” when she appointed him leader of opposition business in the Senate last December. The Long Island MP, who is the granddaughter of national hero Sir Milo Butler, has had several weeks for her political strategy to play out since she ousted Minnis as opposition leader in Parliament.
By some accounts, she and her colleagues were spurred by FNM backers to depose Minnis in the expectation he would step down as party leader. But that did not happen. Instead, the rebels face expulsion from the FNM.
Butler-Turner had been talking to McCartney about an alliance with the DNA that would allow both groups to field candidates separately. McCartney’s senate appointment was billed as the first step on this road, but there has been no apparent movement since.
‘The plan was a superb opportunity for right-thinking people to join a non-establishment movement including the DNA and other opposition groups,” she told me recently. “That didn’t happen, but we are working on a slate of independent candidates.”
According to a prominent DNA backer, “We spoke to the FNM rebels before and after their ouster of Minnis, but they could not decide, so we have to move on.” He added that the DNA would not run in every constituency and was open to non-compete agreements with other opposition forces.
He also provided background on earlier efforts to forge an agreement with Minnis and the FNM, beginning in 2015.
“At first, we discussed a full-blown coalition. There was a joint negotiating committee, an arbitration committee, and lawyers were standing by to draw up a legal agreement, but it never went anywhere. Further attempts collapsed over the number of seats each side would be allocated (the DNA initially wanted 15). And that was the end of talks. Everyone came to the table except Minnis."
He attributed this failure to the FNM’s "entrenched mindset" as a legacy party.
“It's hard for them to let go, but the political reality has changed. The PLP is even worse. They are almost a cult. The DNA is a legitimate party, not a spoiler. We have all the funding we need and we are working hard. In the end, it will be us who decides who governs.”
According to one FNM insider, "Strenuous efforts have been made to get a deal between the DNA and FNM but both leaders are too hard-headed to compromise. I don’t see any deal being done before the election.” Minnis’ closest advisors did not respond to my inquiries.
The DNA won 13,000 votes in the 2012 election - impressive for a new party - but failed to take a single seat. By 2014 McCartney and others were claiming party membership of 23,000. And insiders now say they have 35,000 registered members. Membership figures for the PLP and FNM have never been publicly available.
By all accounts there is huge national disenchantment with Perry Christie’s PLP administration. And for the first time in memory Bahamians are not inspired to register to vote.
Only half the number of voters who registered in the last election have registered so far - about 88,000. By October 2011 - seven months before the May 2012 general election - 134,000 voters had registered. It is impossible to tell which parties the reluctant voters support.
The poster child for electoral confusion is newly appointed Parliamentary Commissioner Sherlyn Hall, who is clearly not up to the job. Evidence for this includes his chaotic handling of the gender equality referendum earlier this year and his deliberate and illegal obstruction of women seeking to register.
An election cannot be called until the Boundaries Commission report is debated and approved in parliament. But the report has yet to be finalised.
Some expect Christie to call a snap election before Easter, once the boundaries report is approved. But he does not have to do so until May 27 - the fifth anniversary of the first sitting of the House after dissolution.
The dilemma for the opposition is best illustrated by looking at the Montagu constituency, which has long been a safe seat for the FNM.
The 2012 election was the closest race ever in this constituency. The PLP and FNM each won seven polling divisions and the FNM managed to scrape through by scores of votes. If there are no boundary changes the opposition should win the same seven divisions again. But changes could benefit the PLP.
This is complicated by the fact that Richard Lightbourne, the incumbent MP, is no longer supported by the FNM, who have nominated Dionisio d’Aguilar. Nomination of a fourth (DNA) candidate may depend on whether Butler-Turner can cut a deal with McCartney.
Parliament is supposed to debate the Freedom of Information bill today, and Butler-Turner expects to make a major presentation. She is also slated to deliver more speeches in the days ahead that may help to clarify opposition politics.
As the duly elected leader of the FNM since 2012, Hubert Minnis must bear the most responsibility for the fracturing of opposition forces. It is he who should be making efforts and giving speeches to help put the pieces back together.
But the real elephant in the room may no longer be the DNA or the rebel MPs but the 'We March' movement. If the opposition forces could respond genuinely to their demands with achievable solutions the battle will have been won.
Question is: who among the opposition forces is best positioned to respond genuinely?