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Face To Face: Green Shoots Of Political Reform - But Will They Be Allowed To Grow?

By ALICIA WALLACE

Political and electoral reform has been a hot topic for years. It is one of the few things we all agree is needed in The Bahamas. Here I am referring to changes to the system of governance, elections and representation at the government level as well as within political parties.

During the 2017 general election season, political reform was a hot topic. We struggled to find the difference between options and weighed the merit in going against the grain in any way, whether in support of an independent candidate or support of no one. Our dissatisfaction with the lacklustre options before us led us to ask why we found ourselves in that position. It all boiled down to one issue — the system.

Reform for what?

The situation in 2017 was not unlike the one in 2012, or the one in 2007. We did not know the candidates and had little opportunity to engage them. We did not know where political parties received funding nor, subsequently, to whom they would be indebted. Leadership of political parties has always been chosen in a closed process and challenge to the seat is not only discouraged, but punished. Prime Ministers overstayed their welcome and have been unabashed in their disinterest in succession planning.

The Bahamian people have not been adequately represented in gender or age. There have been too many allowances for corruption and manipulation, particularly in the moving of boundaries and too much control over the election date. These have been some of our grievances.

When we are not pleased with an administration’s performance, we pay more attention. We watch what is being done by whom and we question every move. We speak about it loudly to ensure everyone else is seeing what we see. At some point, there are people around us who say what is playing out is to be expected. To put our trust in people, they say, is foolish, especially when those people are operating within a flawed system.

We are told that even those who enter frontline politics with the best of intentions are, at some point, corrupted, if only because they realise they cannot make the change they want to see alone. As a consolation prize, they do whatever they can to serve themselves. This is the way it has always gone and it is not going to change. Not before we change the system. Whether you believe this to be the case or not, you are probably in favour of political reform.

We do not have to look closely or for very long to see the problems and it does not take much imagination to at least begin to solve them. What it does take, however, is political will.

Who’s going to win?

Legislation in response to popular demand is treated like a competition. Whichever administration managed to pass the bill gets the praise and then has bragging rights for the next general election season. The game, of course, is rigged, especially when the Opposition has only four seats. There is little point in dragging it out, working in silos and hogging the glory. Political parties have the opportunity to show maturity and work together. Collaboration can create buy-in and when the political players are all in, there is less to contest among the Bahamian people.

The referendum exercise can be less contentious with no room for partisanship and complete focus on the end goal — getting what we, the Bahamian people, want.

Time to get it done

It is possible this is exaggerated or made more visible by social media and greater access to traditional media through, for example, radio talk shows, but this time around, dissatisfaction is across the board. People are not saying we should have voted for the other party or its leader. Bahamians are saying we were forced to make a choice between two options that were — and still are — nowhere near what we needed.

Many have abandoned the back and forth arguments about which party is better, or who would have made a better leader. Our eyes are turned to the system and our rejection of politicians is across the board. Our frustration and exhaustion has forced politicians and political parties into a corner. In this corner, they are having conversations about what they need to do to make us believe they see, hear, understand and agree with us. We have been calling for political reform and they appear to be ready to at least make baby steps toward it.

On Monday, it was reported both the FNM and the PLP are looking to make changes. The FNM is using its political advantage to talk about drafting and discussing bills and the PLP is using its time off to reevaluate and recreate its recruitment process.

Bills, bills, bills

Attorney General Carl Bethel said the bills regarding a fixed election date and term limit for prime ministers are being reviewed by Cabinet this week. It is unclear whether or not a referendum will take place — or whether or not it is required — to make these changes. It has, however, been stated the current administration will not repeat the mistakes of previous governments who have held referenda close to a general election.

While it is encouraging the government is moving forward on the promise on term limits and fixed election dates, it would be helpful to know where it is in the process of constituting an independent Boundaries Commission and bringing a recall system. More than one year in, we would like to see this administration give us the opportunity to let it know the representatives it offered are not performing to our satisfaction.

PLP Deputy Leader Chester Cooper said the party “seeks to meet the demographics of The Bahamas.” He pointed to an expectation that there would be more women and more young people — specifically, millennials — among the party’s candidates for 2022. The PLP is holding meetings for people interested in presenting themselves as candidates and says at least 70 people in Nassau have expressed interest.

Bring the quota

It is exciting to hear a political party is thinking about true representation and recognising the need for greater participation from and inclusion of women and young people. It is important to note it was not said the PLP would actively recruit people in these categories, or reserve a particular number of seats for those meeting set criteria. What would it mean for a major political party to establish a quota?

Some countries in the region have already instituted a gender quota, requiring political parties to reserve 33 percent of winnable seats for women. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report in 2016, data is included from The Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago. The four key areas are economic participation and opportunity, health and survival, educational attainment and political empowerment. The countries performed the worst in the area of political empowerment with a gender gap of 84 percent. At the time of the report, Guyana had the largest proportion of women in its legislature with 35 percent. It is no coincidence Guyana was the first country, in 2002, in the English-speaking Caribbean to institute a gender quota.

When the call is made for temporary special measures — such as a political gender quota — government leadership skirts around it, blaming its failure to act on the people and their wishes. If the PLP is serious about creating space for women to participate in frontline politics, it does not have to wait for a national quota for Parliament. It can amend its own constitution and create policy, complete with a set of activities, aimed at recruiting and engaging potential women candidates. Push the FNM to move.

If we did not know it before, we certainly know now that simply having women in Parliament is not enough. We need women who care about and are able to address issues of gender and see the gender dynamics in areas thought to be genderless such as poverty, health and education. While it is good to know the PLP is open to meeting interested Bahamians, we must make it clear we expect quality that is not defined by level of education or checking certain demographic boxes.

Give young people a reason

Similarly, we must expect quality in the millennials the PLP hopes to bring onboard. In the PLP-commissioned report on the 2017 election, it was said young people did not find the party attractive. Given this, how does the PLP expect to attract young candidates? It has yet to properly rebrand, clearly state its position on persisting issues that are not making headlines, or express any interest in youth perspectives. Until anything along these lines takes place, the PLP will remain the same old PLP in all of our minds. This will not bring new people to the party, young or otherwise. It seems the party expects people to just show up, but it needs to be intentional in its recruitment process to yield desirable results.

Overall, political and electoral reform are welcome. The Bahamian people have been demanding it for years, and more adamantly over the past three years. The FNM and PLP are functioning very separately, as is their habit, but the moves toward the reform we have demanded can be a combined effort. This is a unique opportunity to make a bipartisan effort for the benefit of the people. It does not have to be a partisan competition. In fact, it would be a welcome change if, for once, the Bahamian people win.

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