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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF BAHAMIAN POLITICAL PARTIES

 

By Larry Smith

 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009.

 

Mistaken publications of obituaries aren’t as rare as you might expect,” observes The Phrase Finder website. In 1897, for example, the American writer and humourist Mark Twain famously sent a letter to the New York Journal describing a report of his death as an "exaggeration."

 

We could say the same about the most recent prognostications on the future of the Progressive Liberal Party in the Bahamas. And this is not the first time we have heard them. After the 1997 election - when the Free National Movement won 57.6% of the vote with a turnout of 92% - commentators were convinced that the PLP was headed straight for "the boneyard."

 

That was only five years after the party had suffered its first and only major defeat in a quarter century of absolute ascendancy under the leadership of the late Sir Lynden Pindling. And it was only five years before it won a stunning landslide upset, taking 51.7% of the vote in a turnout of 89%.

 

Clearly, as the American writer Will Rogers put it: “Both political parties have their good times and bad times, only they have them at different times.”

 

The Origins of Party Politics

 

Formed in 1953 the PLP has the distinction of being the first Bahamian political party to win seats in parliament. Its arch enemy - the white-dominated United Bahamian Party - was created in 1958 in response to the election of six PLP representatives in 1956. The FNM was born following a major split in the PLP in 1970, and absorbed remnants of the disbanded UBP.

Party politics came late to the Bahamas.

 

As an insignificant colonial backwater, we lagged behind other territories in the British West Indies. When economic depression led to labour disturbances in the region during the 1930s the Imperial government appointed a travelling commission to hold public hearings, but we were not on their agenda.

 

The commission looked at economic, social and political conditions throughout the Caribbean. Its proposals (made public only after the Second World War ended in 1945) ranged from improvements in agriculture to the extension of the franchise, which required the removal of property, income and educational qualifications for voting and for legislative membership.

 

That such restrictions existed may seem odd to us today, but it was not until 1918 that all men (but only some women) were given the right to vote in Britain - home of the mother of parliaments. And universal suffrage had to wait until 1928. Prior to the First World War, in fact, less than a quarter of the British public could vote due to property qualifications that dated back to feudal times.

 

But growing prosperity after the Second World War led to "a greater awareness of impotence and exclusion...and an increasingly urgent quest for a political voice." according to historian Michael Craton, in his biography of Sir Lynden Pindling. Craton attributed the formation of the PLP to "the winds of change wafting from a Labour-ruled Britain", as well as to spillover from early stirrings of the American civil rights movement.

 

Although a proto-party called the Citizens Committee was formed in 1950 by members of the non-white intelligentsia (including Kendal Isaacs, Gerald Cash and Cleveland Eneas), it faded away within three years and was replaced by the PLP - a reformist party that sought to unite all those in opposition to the Bay Street regime. At the time, the country was run by a kitchen-table cabal of white merchants and lawyers under British overlordship.

 

The PLP was introduced in October 1953 by a group of mixed race, self-educated men who included Henry Taylor, Bill Cartwright and Cyril Stevenson. Their opening manifesto eschewed class and racial warfare, but talked of increasing opportunities for "the small man" - a term which has become ingrained in Bahamian political discourse.

 

So the PLP became the nationalist party, leading the fight against an authoritarian, race-based regime, and ultimately taking power in 1967. Within six years the party had achieved an orderly transition to independence and it reigned supreme until the fallout from a 1984 commission of inquiry into drug trafficking and corruption indelibly damaged its credibility.

 

Political Realignment

 

That fallout led to a serious rupture among party leaders, with cabinet ministers Hubert Ingraham, Perry Christie and Arthur Hanna leaving the PLP because of Sir Lynden's failure to deal forthrightly with corruption issues. This marked the beginning of the PLPs decline as a dominant political force.

 

The late 1980s were a time of political ferment. In a 1991 speech, Perry Christie described the hoops that the three ex-PLPs went through while trying to figure out what to do with their political futures: "We held public meetings, and meetings involving large numbers of Bahamians in various homes. We discussed frankly with thousands of Bahamians."

 

I remember participating in some of those meetings. It was the first time that the long-term survival of the PLP could plausibly be called into question. The choices on the table were joining the opposition FNM, creating an entirely new political party (informally dubbed the Third Force) or returning to the PLP fold. By 1990 the decisions had been made.

 

All three of the prodigals considered a new party much too difficult a project from a logistical point of view. Hanna and Christie agreed to bury the hatchet and rejoin the PLP, while Ingraham went on to lead the FNM. He was anointed by a dying Sir Cecil Wallace-Whitfield, one of the party's founders, in the face of stiff opposition from some.

 

But Ingraham's decision was the tipping point that accelerated an ongoing realignment of Bahamian politics. The exhausted, corrupt and increasingly authoritarian PLP were thrown out in 1992 in an election that was just as historic as the one that had ushered them into power a quarter-century earlier.

 

And despite Sir Lynden's scornful condemnation of the new administration as an "interim government", the FNM went on to achieve an overwhelming victory in 1997, winning 34 seats to the PLPs six. To his credit, Sir Lynden was philosophical about the defeat (his last electoral foray): "All is not lost. We re-examine and rebuild. We were down before, but never out. We have defeated them before, and we can defeat them again."

 

The Demise of the PLP

 

But despite the brave words, many pundits were forecasting the PLP’s demise, or at least its reduction to extreme political irrelevance. The victory was so great that concerns were raised about the future of our two-party democracy - even the Tribune feared the FNM could "lose its balance".

 

And within days of the election, Sir Lynden added to the despair by stepping down after 32 years as party leader, finally conceding that new leadership was needed to resurrect the party's fortunes.

 

When Perry Christie returned to the PLP as Trade and Industry Minister in 1990, he positioned himself as a "bridge to the 21st century", which unexpectedly turned out to be true. Christie and the older Dr Bernard Nottage were named co-deputy leaders after 1997. They both called for a new PLP "committed to achievement, integrity and accountability", and acknowledged that new faces, new ideas and new vision were needed to win the next election.

 

Sir Lynden leaned in favour of Christie, and at the party's first convention after the election the former prodigal was voted in as leader. It was a hinge moment in history. Three years later Pindling was dead of prostate cancer at the age of 70.

 

In 1998 the PLP suffered another body blow when Nottage resigned in a huff to form a new party - the Coalition for Democratic Reform - taking many liberal foot-soldiers with him. But Christie, then 55, vowed he would become the next prime minister. And - against all the odds - he was proved right.

 

The Demise of the FNM

 

The tables turned in 2002, when an electorate of 145,000 gave Christie's PLP 51.7 per cent of the vote to the FNMs 40.8 per cent. The entire FNM cabinet was wiped out, with only seven MPs retaining their seats. And to make matters worse, three FNMs who had split with the party over the leadership struggle were returned as independents, an unprecedented turn of events.

After 10 years in the wilderness, a "fresh wind" had blown a New PLP back into power, something which Bradley Roberts described joyfully as "a glorious moment in Bahamian political history". Nottage and the CDR had absolutely no impact on the election, gaining only a handful of votes overall.

 

The FNM led by Tommy Turnquest was stunned. Ingraham admitted that a botched leadership succession and a last-minute constitutional referendum that turned voters off had cost the FNM dearly. Christie, meanwhile, promised a government of consultancy and said he would immediately pass a public integrity act to make officials more accountable.

 

Pierre Dupuch, one of the FNM splitters who came from a family that had been unalterably opposed to the PLP for generations, said he was confident the old PLP was dead. He and former FNM attorney-general Tenneyson Wells, along with Long Island MP Larry Cartwright, became a favoured minority in Parliament, offering tacit support to the PLP.

 

"I'm exhausted," backbencher Ingraham said before leaving on a 10-day post-election vacation. "But I'll be back."

 

The Stupid Party

 

Within four years Nottage had returned to the PLP and the CDR remnant had disbanded to join forces with the FNM. But the May 2007 election made good on Ingraham's promise, and the "New" PLP was turfed out after only one term -  an unprecedented outcome for any Bahamian party controlling all the levers of power.

 

John Stuart Mill once dismissed the British Conservative Party as "the stupid party". And that's the title many pundits are now giving to the PLP. Some say the stupid party will be out of power for a long time as a result of its failure to recast itself. Unfortunately, the New PLP turned out to be much like the Old PLP - supporting a culture of corruption and entitlement, and generally hostile to business or new ideas.

 

According to one former PLP cabinet minister, "There is a need for change within the PLP. The party cannot face the future without some fundamental reform."

 

What an extraordinary admission, after the golden opportunity presented in 2002 was so thoroughly wasted. The question is, what does he mean by change? So far we can see plenty of leadership posturing but no attempt at reform, not even self-examination. For two years after the election the PLP kept the partisan fires burning as if they had been cheated out of power. Now they potentially face a future of long-term irrelevance.

 

According to the Scottish writer John Arbuthnot, “All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.” It remains to be seen whether the PLP will be able to achieve the fundamental reform that it seems to require, or whether it will fatally choke on its own self-delusion.

 

In the meantime, there are eddies of change swirling about beyond the control of the two major political groupings. The anonymous National Development Party has raised a website that says it is "committed to meet the challenges of the future". A group of intellectuals has formed a "visioning committee" to push for national strategic planning. And a former PLP chairman has released a document that calls for a "national conversation" about the future.

 

So is the PLP on its deathbed, as some pundits claim? Well, it is foolhardy to make such predictions because in politics events can change everything, a week can become a lifetime, and madness is the rule.

 

Larry Smith writes a column called "Tough Call" every Wednesday for the Bahamas Nassau Tribune. A former reporter and editor, he now operates a communications agency in Nassau -http://www.bahamasmedia.com. He also blogs at Bahamapundit.

 

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