Op-Ed

Early elections, pt. 2

Last week, we observed that there have been early general elections in several English-speaking Caribbean countries, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic with thousands of confirmed cases and hundreds of deaths in six short months.

The leaders of the governing parties in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Bermuda called early elections, with the polls favoring a return of the incumbent in each case, and in some cases, with a greater plurality than their previous elections. In every case, the incumbent governing party was returned to office, thereby securing a fresh electoral mandate.

In light of these developments, the idea must have crossed the prime minister’s mind about whether he should call early elections here, which would also refresh his party’s mandate for another five years.

Therefore, this week, we will continue to consider this — can a convincing case be made for an early general election in The Bahamas?

The question is, “Why would he?”

It might appear to be counter-intuitive for the government to see any wisdom in not running out the clock and not serving out the duration of its tenure, which ends in May 2022. An election is not due here for 20 months.

If we look at the current state of affairs, prospects for an early election might seem to be not only counter-intuitive but suicidal. Given the national developments of the past year, where do we stand?

Just over a year ago, one of the most destructive hurricanes in nearly 100 years camped for several days over the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama in the northern Bahamas.

Hurricane Dorian officially claimed the lives of 74 souls — although the actual number of deaths might never be fully known. The total damage amounted to $3.4 billion. One year later, those islands are still digging out of the carnage Dorian wreaked, with dim prospects of achieving any significant improvement in the foreseeable future.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will likely experience an unemployment rate that approaches a depression level statistic of 35 percent. Our previously burgeoning tourism sector has crawled to a standstill, our financial services sector is continuously assaulted by the international agencies whose mantra appears to be “Who should we blacklist next?” and many businesses that have not entirely succumbed to the pandemic remain comatose.

There are currently 35,000 Bahamians living below the poverty line, with scant prospects of improving their circumstances soon.

On the fiscal side, tax revenue has plummeted, public sector spending has soared, with at least $150 million paid out of the National Insurance coffers, the national GFS deficit will ascend to historical highs and our national psyche is experiencing all-time lows. We are approaching a national debt of $9 billion in an economy whose GDP last year approached $12 billion. The latter figure will undoubtedly significantly shrink because of the economic fallout from COVID-19.

So why would the prime minister risk an early election? The answer in a word: timing.

Limited options

The budget for the fiscal year 2021/2022, which will be tabled next May, must be an election budget. It is the last budget that will be submitted by the current administration ahead of the election, which is scheduled to be held by May 2022.

Election budgets can be easily anticipated. They usually contain humungous givebacks to the citizens to curry favor with them. Given the fiscal, economic and social realities that presently confront this government, it is quite likely that next year’s budget will not contain many benefits for the electorate.

Furthermore, because of the rapidly diminishing fiscal and economic prospects, the government will have to increase taxes and radically reduce expenditures in the run-up to the 2022 election. Its hands will be severely tied, its options significantly limited and it will have to face the stark reality that it will not want to prescribe such a bitter pill to the electorate just before an election.

Therefore, it stands to reason that the government will be motivated to forestall such devastating news to the electorate. The most practical way to accomplish this is to call an early election before it tables the 2021/2022 budget, which will not be well received.

Timing is everything

In the face of these sobering realities, it is highly conceivable that the government will consider calling an early election next year. So, what are its options?

The government will face the harsh reality that it will have to hold an election before it submits its next budget, what would be the so-called election budget, in May 2021.

There is a convention in our system that elections will not be held during the Lenten season, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday, notwithstanding the 1997 general election, which was held on March 4, 16 days before Easter Sunday that year.

Next year, Ash Wednesday falls on February 17, 2021, and Easter Sunday will occur on April 2, 2021. Therefore, it is quite likely that the Lenten season, February 17 to April 2, 2021, will be blackout dates and that an early election, if called, would be held outside those dates.

It is possible that a general election could be called before Ash Wednesday, but that significantly limits the ability for qualified voters to register for the election. It is possible but exceedingly challenging.

The more likely date for an early general election will be sometime in April, after Easter. That would extend the time for the electorate to register to vote. A post-Easter, April election would also give us sufficient time to hold elections before the May budget is submitted. If he wins, the prime minister would have time to appoint a Cabinet that would be ready for a late May budget communication containing extraordinarily austere measures.

There is no question that timing is everything. The decision for an early election, which is the prime minister’s sole discretion, is a calculated gamble.

Unfulfilled promises

The prime minister must also be prepared to definitively defend his decision to call an early election with so many unfulfilled promises made in the run-up to the 2017 election.

If he decided to call an early election, the prime minister must unambiguously articulate, cogently justify and definitively defend why he would need a new mandate in light of the overwhelming majority he received on May 10, 2017, and that he presently enjoys in Parliament. He has a supermajority of members in the House of Assembly – 33 government members versus five opposition members and one independent. So why does he need a new mandate? He does not.

The prime minister must also determine whether his gambit for an early election will seriously contradict his stated position that we should have a fixed date for elections. His decision to call for an early election will break his often-stated promise to remove this decision from the discretion of an incumbent prime minister.

Additionally, there are many other unfulfilled promises that were made before the last general election. The prime minister has another 20 months to fulfill those promises, so he is not presently constrained by time to deliver on those promises.

Bahamians should not be deceived.

Given the prime minister’s overwhelming electoral majority, and the considerable time that remains in his present term, an early election would foreshadow immensely onerous and incalculably austere measures that he and his government plan to impose on Bahamians in the May 2021 budget. These measures will place prodigious pressures on a premature post-2021 poll Bahamas, already reeling from disastrous dilemmas not of our own making.

Conclusion

We are living at a time of incomparable and incalculable challenges which seem to be intractable.

The effects of recent hurricanes that continue to haunt us, the global pandemic that has landed on our shores, an anemic economy, rampant unemployment, unacceptably high poverty, record public debt and fiscal deficits, social discord and deeply personal anxieties have become entrenched daily realities that require proactive paradigm shifts and profound and perceptive vision.

Now, more than ever before, to rescue our Bahamas from an uncertain and unreliable future that is looming on the horizon, what is needed is imaginative and inventive leadership with a positive and prescient plan. We do not need early elections.

• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to pgalanis@gmail.com.

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