By PACO NUNEZ
Tribune news editor
IT is generally accepted that the use of law enforcement to intimidate or suppress political rivals is the sign of an authoritarian government.
Talk of secret police units invokes sinister nightmares from the past – the Gestapo, the KGB – as well as any of the present-day versions scattered around the globe that share with them the primary objective of ensuring those who are in power stay in power.
To hear some in the PLP and DNA tell it, our political process is under threat from just such a clandestine force. According to opposition spokesperson Fred Mitchell: "There are consistent and persistent stories by back channels of the use of the Special Branch (of the police force) for reasons which do not have to do with the security of the state, but with the politics of the government."
The claim is that officers from the Special Branch and other departments have been reassigned, at the behest of the government, to a secret unit charged with investigating the campaign activities of the FNM's opponents ahead of the upcoming elections.
These officers have already begun "lurking outside" the homes of politicians, watching their every move, according to a DNA source.
So, are we really on the slippery slope towards spookocracy? What's in store next, political kidnappings and institutionalised torture?
Not a chance, regardless of whether or not the claims are true.
In fact, depending on its mandate, a political police unit could be the best thing that happened to the Bahamas in a very long time.
For instance, it is unlikely a coincidence that claims of its existence surfaced at the same time the eligibility of some voters registered in North Andros is being challenged.
The government says certain PLP generals have been flying in supporters from Nassau and other islands, and helping them to register in the constituency in an effort to make sure their man wins.
But vowing to see a clean race in North Andros, the FNM candidate, Minister of Education Desmond Bannister, has produced lists of suspect voters, called for hearings, and been granted them.
If the new police unit so feared by the opposition is to be used in the same spirit as Mr Bannister's crusade, I say bring it on.
Our society is plagued by corruption in many forms, but political corruption is the grandfather of them all. It was with us before independence, before majority rule, and has tainted every aspect of life with its message that cheating is the way to get ahead.
It isn't hard to see the effects. How can the concept of citizenship have any meaning to a people who trade their chance at real representation for a fist-full of cash? How can a work ethic exist in a place where votes are bought with public service jobs? Why would young people turn their back on crime after watching their parents become accomplices in stolen elections past?
It's high time someone did something about it.
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Denying the existence of a new police unit per se, Minister of National Security Tommy Turnquest couldn't resist dropping the hint that something is up, telling the opposition they have nothing to worry about if they are running a clean campaign.
But even as the PLP tried to use Mr Turnquest's comments to paint him as a modern-day Himmler, they reminded us of why he couldn't possibly be.
"At one point, (the minister) said he had information in files that would cause people to go to jail, is he now judge and jury?" Mr Mitchell asked.
Secret police forces of old were indeed mandated to work outside the law and mete out punishment independent of the courts. But this was only because they operated in a wider social framework in which the person with the power made the rules.
For Mr Turnquest to be "judge and jury" the Bahamas would suddenly have to forget that it is a parliamentary democracy and abandon the rule of law overnight.
Despite the scaremongering, all claims of political malfeasance will still have to be brought before the judiciary, or the Parliamentary Registration Department, regardless of how they were unearthed.
Granted, the courts have their own problems, but at least this much can be said: any party operative who stands accused will have as good of a shot at justice as the average man accused of a crime – probably a better one given the high profile nature of the issue.
Some will argue that even if such charges hold water, the process is likely to suffer from selective application; PLP and DNA malfeasance will be investigated, but the FNM will get a free pass.
Maybe so, but this has nothing to do with justice, which is to be applied according to each individual case. I'm no less deserving of a speeding ticket because the driver in front of me was going just as fast, but managed not to get stopped.
The point then, is a political one: the FNM's opponents fear the governing party will cruise to another election win, not on merit, but because they were the only party to avoid being tarred with the corruption brush.
Such an outcome would indeed undermine our democratic process. But is this less true of an election bought with bribes?
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Nor is it the case that there is nothing the FNM's opponents can do about the situation. The PLP has a network of supporters and party officers at least as big as the FNM's.
Were I in charge of the opposition, I would encourage each and every one of them to compile their own list of fraudulently registered FNM voters, and document all other claims of political chicanery.
I would make a big show of turning this information over to the Commissioner of Police for forwarding to the "political unit", and publicly seek an update on the investigation every day from now until election.
If the police do not respond with the same enthusiasm with which the government's claims are greeted, the PLP would have a real hot potato in hand – a veritable gift from the FNM just ahead of the elections.
The opposition already tries to gain mileage from portraying Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham as tyrannical – this would be some potent fuel indeed. I would milk it for all it’s worth, even bring international shame down on the Bahamas, until the allegations are properly dealt with.
As for the DNA, a substantial part of its platform depends on its image as the "corruption free" party. They should just sit back and watch the other two parties cannibalise each other. This may have already occurred to party leader Branville McCartney, as he has yet to comment on claims that an officer has been assigned to follow his every move.
And even if the FNM manage to gain some slight political advantage in the short term, this would be a small price to pay in the long run. If we are ever to have a proper democracy in this country, someone will have to empower the police to investigate political venality.
Yes, we would all have to watch the movements of this hypothetical political police unit carefully to ensure it isn't being manipulated.
But then that's what mature democracy is all about – empowering citizens to take responsibility for their own society, instead of treating them like infants who need the “big man” to take care of them come election time.