EDITOR, The Tribune.
Several countries in the Caribbean have held early general elections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The trend for these pandemic elections started with St Kitts and Nevis on June 5. Team Unity which is a coalition party headed by incumbent Prime Minister, Dr Timothy Harris was returned to power winning nine of the 11 seats.
This was followed by Trinidad and Tobago’s national election on August 10, where the incumbent Prime Minister, Dr Keith Rowley’s Peoples National Movement (PNM) was re-elected by a slim majority.
Jamaica held its general elections on September 3. Incumbent Prime Minister, Andrew Holness and his Jamaica Labour Party won a convincing victory taking 49 of 63 seats in the Jamaican Parliament.
In Bermuda, general elections have been announced for October 1, and I expect that incumbent Premier, Edward David Burt’s Progressive Labour Party (PLP) will win re-election.
This trend of early elections during the pandemic indicates several consistencies:
• The power of incumbency. When elections are called early the incumbent party is best positioned to take full advantage. They usually have easier access to campaign finances and to government resources. Incumbent political parties will usually have more visible name recognition as well as a head start in any constituency boundary changes.
• Incumbent governments are not being blamed for terrible economic conditions exacerbated by the pandemic. During the pandemic, electors in the Caribbean seem willing to look past the unemployment numbers, the GFC deficit figures and the poor fiscal and monetary projections and give incumbents the benefit of any doubt. So from that perspective incumbent governments have benefitted from the scourge of the virus.
• Voter turnout was very low. Whether its voter apathy or frustration, people deciding not to participate, or whether people are afraid to stand on line to vote, the voter turnout in these pandemic elections has been lower than usual. In St Kitts and Nevis, 64 percent of the eligible voters actually voted. In Trinidad and Tobago, of the 1.1 million eligible voters 658,297 votes were cast for a 58 percent turnout. In Jamaica the situation was even worse with a voter turnout of 37 percent, the worst since 1983. To be sure, voter turnout in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, the region’s two largest English speaking populations, is telling.
The question then is will the Minnis administration or more accurately will Prime Minister Minnis see any benefit or value in calling an early election? Both Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica had gone past four years since their last election. On the other hand, Bermuda has barely gone by three years since its last election and St Kitts and Nevis had gone past five years since its last general election in February, 2015 although the election was held within the constitutional deadline. The Prime Minister indicated recently that he is not considering a snap election at this time as the government is trying to save lives. Now Bahamians could take that pronouncement as they want! But what I do know is the government has indicated that it will not be redrawing boundary lines; it has appointed the Constituencies Commission; and it intends to introduce legislation to establish a permanent register; voters card have been or are being printed all signs of an impending election.
However, the political environment for calling an early election in the Bahamas is quite different for Prime Minister Minnis than it was for the Trinidadian and Jamaican Prime Ministers. There are three primary reasons.
Firstly, Bahamians seem to be blaming the Prime Minister for the state of the Bahamian economy. They blame the irregular and sporadic lockdowns and curfews for the closure of local businesses and the resulting high unemployment numbers. Many of these businesses will not re-open.
Secondly, Bahamians fault the Prime Minister for the explosion of new COVID-19 infections following the July 1st re-opening of the borders to international travel. They feel as if the current increase in infections could have been avoided if only the re-opening of the borders had been managed more responsibly. Moreover, many feel that the sporadic curfews, lockdowns and part opening of businesses assisted in the spread of the virus due to the long lines and chaos experienced at the food stores, gas stations and pharmacies.
Thirdly, neither Jamaica nor Trinidad and Tobago experienced a category 5 Hurricane. Five months prior to the initial period of COVID-19 in the Bahamas Hurricane Dorian devastated parts of Abaco and Grand Bahama taking scores of lives, leaving hundreds missing and causing billions in damage and destruction. The government’s response to the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian has been mixed. While the government pats itself on the back and claims that it has done a good job even though it admits there is much more to be done, the people of Abaco and East Grand Bahama point to the mixed messaging of missing persons and the callous treatment of the bodies of relatives. They criticise the government for the slow progress in the restoration of utility services and infrastructure. They complain about the slow rebuilding of homes and businesses and for the absence of transparency in accounting for local and international donations.
Free, fair and regular elections are seen as the pinnacle of a country’s democracy. The Bahamas has been fortunate in that it has had many cycles of elections with very high voter turnout and with very little record of violence.
I would have no difficulty if the Prime Minister calls election any time after May 2021. His government would have had a record of four years to be judged by. I would prefer an early election as opposed to an election that was delayed beyond the normal five year period facilitated by trumped up emergency powers.
Bahamians must decide whether they were deceived by the government in deliberately allowing the Proclamation of Emergency to expire in June which permitted them to enact a new Proclamation that could now extend the emergency powers to December of this year. Most signs point to an early election. I hope Bahamians will register and vote by whatever means the government puts in place. My hope is that the trend of low voter turnout we have seen in our sister Caribbean countries does not take hold here. The voter turnout in the past four elections was as follows: 2002=90 percent; 2007= 92.1 percent; 2012= 91.2 percent. However in 2017, the turnout fell to 88.3 percent. Let us pray that there is renewed faith in the electoral system, renewed confidence in our system of government and that we elect “honorable” men and women to represent us in Parliament.
September 14, 2020.