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A VIEW FROM THE BAHAMAS

 

By Larry Smith

Thursday, May 20, 2010.

In 1962, despite polling more votes overall, the Bahamas’ PLP  actually lost two seats in the 33-seat House of Assembly, while the UBP won 20 and four independents were elected. This surprising result postponed the advent of majority rule by another five years.

Most of the blame for that debacle fell on the way constituency boundaries had been drawn by the UBP - a process condemned as gerrymandering ever since Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts passed a redistricting law in 1812 that grossly favoured his own party.

But there are those who argue that the traditional Westminster system of 'winner takes all' voting developed in Britain during the 19th century is a direct cause of the kind of representative failure that Bahamians faced in 1962. And those arguments carry more weight today following last week's inconclusive British election.

For the first time in a generation, Britain's third party (the Liberal Democrats) held the balance of power. Both Labour and the Conservatives lost the election, and the British were suddenly faced with the spectacle of normally arrogant politicians scrambling to negotiate a power sharing deal. Can you imagine what would happen here in similar circumstances? There would likely be rioting in the streets.

The Liberal Democrat Party was formed in 1988 when the venerable Liberal Party merged with a breakaway faction of the Labour Party. The Liberals were once a dominant force in British politics, alternating in power with the Conservative Party from the mid-1800s until the early 20th century when a major political realignment took place. The last Liberal prime minister - David Lloyd George - left office in 1922.

From that point on the Liberal vote declined and was spread more evenly across the nation, whereas support for the Conservative and Labour parties was concentrated in areas that could deliver hundreds of seats in a general election. After the Second World War the Liberal Party was reduced to a rump and came close to extinction in the 1950s.

As a result, changing the voting system to some form of proportional representation became a key policy goal. But in 1974 - the last time there was a hung parliament in Britain - the Liberals were unable to clinch a deal for electoral reform with either of the main parties, although for a time they helped prop up a minority Labour government.

Our parliamentary and voting system is essentially the same as the one in Britain. The candidate in each constituency who gets the most votes wins the seat, regardless of the margin of victory over other candidates or percentage of the overall vote. This can penalize smaller parties that may have support that is not concentrated enough to win many seats.

For example, the Liberal Democrats emerged from last Thursday's election with 23 per cent of the overall vote, but just 9 per cent of parliamentary seats. Meanwhile, the Labour Party won 29 per cent of the vote, but 40 per cent of the seats. And the Conservatives, with about 36 per cent of the vote, took 47 per cent of the seats. This result meant that no single party could command a majority in parliament.

In the early 1990s - after enduring a decade of Conservative rule - the Labour Party began to embrace electoral reform, promising the Lib Dems to hold a referendum on the issue if elected. Although the scale of Tony Blair's Labour victory in 1997 made this unnecessary, a high-powered commission on voting reform was set up. It called for a mixed system, with most MPs elected by constituencies, and some by a party list.

This would be similar to the German model, where a percentage of seats is allocated to each party in proportion to the number of votes the party receives in a general election beyond a legal threshold (usually 5 per cent). Candidates who win the most votes in their districts are elected, but a second vote determines how many representatives will be sent from each party to the parliament.

The intellectual rationale for proportional representation was provided by the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill. He based his arguments on the possibility of the mass electorate producing a tyranny of the majority, crushing dissent and eliminating minority representation altogether.

In our region, countries with proportional representation of one kind or another include the Cayman Islands, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands Antilles and Haiti. Like the Bahamas, most Caricom countries have retained the 'winner takes all' system inherited from the British.

Has this had a negative impact on our little democracy? Well, the Bahamian electorate is relatively homogenous - if you exclude the 15 per cent whitish minority - and both main parties claim to be non-racial. Still, there are only four white MPs in our 41-seat parliament, so perhaps there is an argument for proportional representation on ethnic grounds.

More to the point, there are no small party representatives in our parliament, despite the fact that the Bahamas Democratic Movement has been slogging away since 1998. The Coalition for Democratic Reform lasted five years without winning a seat before disbanding ignominiously before the 2007 election.

Before that, the National Democratic Party (a breakaway faction of the PLP) was wiped out at the polls in 1967. And more recently, the new National Development Party failed to make any impact in the Elizabeth bye-election, despite fielding an attractive candidate and talking a lot of sense.

But ex-PLP chairman Raynard Rigby sees no need for proportional representation: "The voters' voices are not suppressed. I don't accept that argument. The fact that third parties can't get a majority has all to do with message, believability and connecting with the voters. I always start from the premise that the voter does not make a mistake. So there can be no unfair elections."

FNM Chairman Carl Bethel says proportional representation has never been on the radar here. "There is no appetite to change the 'first past the post' system because the two parties in the House would lose their monopoly (on power) if a party with (a minimum) popular vote was able to win seats. We don't have the equivalent of a Liberal Democrat Party with substantial seats to open the possibilities for gridlock which now confronts the UK.

"Let me also add that, from what I observed in Guyana, a PR system would greatly strengthen the hand of the prime minister, since individual MPs, do not actually represent any constituency. What happens is that a list of MPs is issued and from that list the actual MPs are selected according to the party's proportional entitlement after the election. The PM would be able to exclude his internal competitors or opponents."

According to Sir Arthur Foulkes, writing in 2006, political parties in the Bahamas are easy to form but difficult to build. The PLP succeeded in the 1950s because of "a confluence of events that made the Bahamas ripe for the establishment and growth of a political party with popular appeal across the nation. The PLP leadership was determined to remove the intransigent Old Guard from power."

As for the FNM, he said the circumstances at the time were unique and unlikely to occur again. "After the 1967 and 1968 general elections, the political division in the House of Assembly was clearly along racial lines and there was a good chance the UBP would have been wiped out altogether. In any event, the time had come to end racial politics.

"A few enlightened and perceptive members of the UBP, led by Geoffrey Johnstone, understood this. So when in 1970 a bloc of parliamentary members of the PLP – the Dissident Eight -- voted no confidence in their leader and were suspended from the party, Sir Geoffrey proposed the dissolution of the UBP and turning over the responsibility for opposition to the Eight.

"So in 1971 a new political party -- the FNM -- was formed and assumed the role of opposition, not third party.  After a disastrous splintering in 1977, the FNM was reunified in time for the 1982 election and has remained in parliament until now."

In the 2007 general election, splinter candidates (the BDM and several independents) received only about 3 per cent of the vote. In fact, the electoral high point for candidates not drawn from the two major parties was the general election of 2002, when they collectively won 7.5 per cent of the vote. But that was largely due to the fact that the PLP refrained from fielding candidates against several independents (all former FNM incumbents).

In the late 1980s, Hubert Ingraham and his supporters toyed with the idea of setting up a "third force" after he was expelled from the PLP for opposing corruption. The consensus was that building a new party was too difficult from a logistical and financial point of view, so Ingraham went on to join the FNM. He was anointed by a dying Sir Cecil Wallace-Whitfield, and elected leader in 1990.

Under Ingraham, the FNM defeated the PLP in 1992, with 55 per cent of the overall vote. Five years later they achieved an overwhelming victory, taking 85 per cent of the parliamentary seats on the strength of 58 per cent of the overall vote  (34 to six). In 2002 this result was practically reversed, with the PLP taking 73 per cent of the seats on the basis of 52 per cent of the vote (29 to seven).

Before 1992 the PLP comfortably won elections in 1987, 1982, 1977, 1972, 1968 and 1967. In fact, there were legitimate fears during their quarter-century monopoly on power that democracy would all but disappear in the Bahamas. And it is certainly true that the ruling party has won all of the seats in parliament in more than a dozen general elections in Commonwealth Caribbean countries.

Would proportional representation help avoid such distortions here? Could a third party ever establish itself in our parliament without proportional representation?

Dr John Rodgers, a local eye surgeon and public affairs commentator, believes the time is ripe for a third party movement: "A new party could win outright, or at least enough seats to force a coalition in the next election, if it has the right mix of candidates, a solid mandate and $5-10 million in campaign funding."

Younger voters, he says, are tired of the same old rhetoric, personalities and policies. "The economy is in terrible shape and crime is out of control - the two things people are most concerned about. The electorate has witnessed the changes in the US and now the UK. There will be a change here in 2012 if  the right third party emerges."
 
Well, that's a big "if". And $10 million is a lot to invest in an unknown entity. Meanwhile, back in Britain the fat lady sang last Wednesday evening when David Cameron became prime minister in a coalition with the Lib Dems after promising a referendum on alternative voting.

The Liberal Democrats have been down this road before with Labour, yet the promised electoral reform never materialised. The big difference this time is that they had both parties by the short and hairies.

 

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