By Richard Coulson
POLLS have proven unreliable in forecasting ‘Brexit’ in the UK and Trump in the US, and here in the Bahamas, amazingly, we don’t even have them.
A columnist like me is left flying blind, with only his gut feeling and unscientific chats with friends to guide him. The huge party rallies - of course - tell us nothing, serving only to excite the mindless bodies who enjoy jumping and cheering.
Of only one thing am I pretty sure: this election will be the last hurrah of the Perry Christie regime, despite the man’s magnetic human appeal. I cannot predict the exact fate of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), Free National movement (FNM) or Democratic National Alliance (DNA) over 39 electoral districts, let alone the ever-hopeful splinter groups fighting a few battles as Independent, Bahamas Constitution Party (BCP), Bahamas National Coalition Party (BNCP) or The People’s Movement (TPM). The two major parties, I believe, will split their constituency wins in something close to a tie.
On the one hand, voters will weigh the vast disappointment left by the PLP over the last five years, created not so much by crime and corruption as by plain incompetence, indecision and cover-ups, led from the PM’s office downward, non-solution of the smoking landfill, non-disclosure of the electric power deal or the cost of BAMSI, the sink-holes of Bahamasair, ZNS and Bank of Bahamas, repudiation of the gambling referendum, the continuing urban slum of eastern Bay Street, the delays and mysteries of Baha Mar, stagnation of employment and - looming above all - the unfunded pension liabilities and the ever-increasing public deficits and national debt that could lead to financial collapse.
But on the other hand, will voters find a viable alternative in the FNM? Straight as a die, Dr Minnis may be hard-working and decisive, capable of quelling a revolution in his own party. But that revolution itself may have undermined essential pillars of party loyalty, and this in a party that he has only been running for five years after rising from obscurity to assume ‘Papa Hubert’s’ mantle - and we have seen ‘Papa’ still knows how to growl. Despite all Dr Minnis’ announced plans, as the minority leader (let’s ignore Loretta Butler-Turner) he could achieve no track record of proven accomplishments.
Rashly floating cancellation of the Baha Mar sale to the Chinese showed a pretty desperate flail that casts doubts about his judgment under pressure. His biggest problem is simply his pugnacious contrast to Perry’s charisma, that can lure the birds from the trees and voters from their common sense.
So I call it a toss-up, with possibly an edge for the PLP.
What happens after the election is of greater interest. If the PLP loses, the answer will be quick and brutal. Perry Christie will be gone as party leader. Personal loyalties to the man will remain, but political loyalties will vanish as the loss will be laid on his plate and no other. We will then see a catfight for the unenviable role of PLP party leader. There is little love lost among any of the present ministers who think they should be anointed. Accident-prone Jerome Fitzgerald is Perry’s favourite, but will that count for much with Perry gone? Brave Davis will make his long-awaited claim, and very likely Shane Gibson and Obie Wilchombe, even the controversial Fred Mitchell - assuming they all win their seats, which is no sure bet.
Who knows, Attorney-General Allyson Maynard-Gibson could shrewdly play the female ticket against the old-boy crowd. And Alfred Sears, a pretty definite winner in Fort Charlotte, could emerge as a popular favourite untainted with previous Cabinet stains. With a party convention probably called to make the choice, it will be an entertaining spectacle.
Alternatively, If the PLP succeeds, with a bare plurality of seats shrunken by DNA incursions, most of the present Cabinet will remain, as Bradley Roberts and his cheerleading Bahama News will loudly crow victory. However, many believe that within two years Perry will step down. He will have achieved his objective of a second-term success, and age and uncertain health will weigh heavily on his abilities to carry the incessant stress of governance. A knighthood may be quietly dangled, the fitting reward for the long career of a leader beloved by many Bahamians. He may try to designate his successor, using the Mexican ‘dedazo’, or pointed finger from the retiring boss.
But the choice will ultimately be made by his Parliamentary colleagues, and again will be something of a catfight. Technically, they can choose whomever they please, but realistically they must keep public opinion sharply in mind. Fred would be hard for a majority to swallow, and handsome Jerome’s many gaffes could be held against him. Brave may be too closely linked as Perry’s former law partner, and bears his own scars, like Renew Bahamas’ flop at the landfill. In his previous challenge to Perry, Sears was roundly rejected by the party leaders, but this time they may accept him as the people’s favourite for a new broom to lead a reformed PLP.
What will change?
This election will mark other developments in our electoral trends. Over the last few years, we have heard a chorus of cries from “the people” that all our political parties are corrupt and unrepresentative hotbeds of cronyism that must be replaced with something better, more “democratic”. But what? And by whom? Despite all the noise, new leaders never emerged. We have seen Ranard Henfield, a man of obvious brains and energy, create his vocal We March group but show no interest in political organisation. The sound and fury of his several vigorous demonstrations captured publicity, but they were essentially one-shot shows.
What is the effect of a thousand or more enthusiastic marchers, without a programme or structure, in a registered electorate of 181,000? The carefully drafted petitions that Henfield and other civil society leaders are currently circulating show well-meaning calls for good governance, but reach mainly the literate intelligentsia with close to zero impact among the masses. They struggle to get as many as 500 signatories - peanuts.
This election should prove once again to Bahamians that political change will only be brought about by the tough, painstaking, expensive effort of creating a viable political party. Whatever may be thought about Branville McCartney, at least he took the plunge in creating the DNA, knowing it would be a long slog to success. Perhaps, for the first time, he may win House seats, but certainly not yet a majority or plurality. That will take more time (if ever). His policy of refusing an alliance with the FNM may seem perverse in the short term, but surely is correct towards the objective of creating a meaningful opposition or “third way”. Bahamians with fond dreams of a new regime should take a hard look at the reality of creating the DNA.
Of course, we could have a revolution, as in France, Mexico, Russia or Cuba. But I firmly believe that is not the Bahamian way. And the Lord spare us from the stateist sins of Venezuela.
We must keep our eyes open to the radical changes in social organisation and technological innovation that are already altering our daily lives and will have deep effects on our politics. The rate of change has not doubled, it has squared. Ten years ago, one never saw squads of impeccably dressed young ladies lined up at the cocktail bar after work talking more into their iPhones than among themselves, and at their jobs they are glued to their computer screens importing the world via the internet. For frivolous reasons or serious ones, they now spend hours linked to the outside universe, not to the local neighbourhood. Perhaps it never crosses their minds that every chip of technology in their hands was invented and engineered outside the Bahamas, without a trace of local labour.
As the older generation, still uncomfortable with the electronic era, gradually shrinks and the younger set grows, inevitably their knowledge and interests will open even further to influences from outside our country. The remaining bastions of chauvinism will erode, as our immigration policy will be forced to adopt a friendlier policy toward well-qualified foreigners, our customs rules will ease the importation of goods easily found in the United States, and some will be shocked as radical religious and moral values will erode our pillars of traditional Christian faith.
These changes do not mean we need to lose the slightest degree of our national pride, or cease to extol our warm Bahamian traditions of community and family solidarity, or any less enjoy our natural resources of sun and sea. But, just as in the 1950s, we could not foresee the social conditions of today, we must accept that today we have little vision of what life will be like in 2080. We will eat different, dress different, commute different, talk different, play different and work at different jobs.
That means we will vote different. Facing an accelerating rate of change that will not slow up, we will soon need a new breed of politicians who know how to live with differences. And not to resist them, but to seize their advantages.
• Richard Coulson is a retired lawyer and investment banker born in Nassau and from a long line of Bahamians. He is a financial consultant and author of A Corkscrew Life - adventures of a travelling financier.