Op-EdOpinion

Early elections, pt. one

‘If citizens are punished instantly for breaking the laws, then politicians should also be punished immediately for breaking promises.” Amit Kalantri

In several Caribbean countries, there have been early general elections, amidst the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

St Kitts & Nevis held elections on June 5, 2020, followed by Trinidad and Tobago on August 10, 2020.

Jamaicans went to the national polls six months ahead of the constitutionally mandated deadline on September 3, 2020. Bermuda has announced early elections for October 1, 2020, with the polls currently favoring a return of the incumbent Progressive Labour Party.

In every case in which early elections were held in the English-speaking Caribbean countries, with varying degrees, the incumbent governing party was returned to office, thereby securing a fresh electoral mandate.

This week, we would like to consider this — can a convincing case be made for an early general election in The Bahamas?

We will first review the recent experience of the English-speaking Caribbean and then address The Bahamas.

The Caribbean experience

Of all the elections held this year in the English-speaking Caribbean, only one – St. Kitts & Nevis – had gone past the established five-year term, although that election was held in the constitutionally prescribed time.

The other countries’ elections were called and held before their mandates expired. Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica were in office for four years since their last elections, and Bermuda was barely past three years since its last election.

Several important trends emerged from the Caribbean elections. Firstly, the reelection of the incumbent accentuated the power of incumbency. Incumbents have the advantage of surprise, enabling their candidates to be more prepared for elections earlier than the official opposition.

This built-in early warning advantage of the incumbent includes advanced knowledge about possible constituency boundary changes, which enables its candidates to get a head start on the opposition.

By anticipating potential boundary changes, candidates can focus their attention on areas that they need to work on to shore up their support while ignoring those constituents they will no longer have to court because they will no longer be included in their constituencies.

Secondly, the incumbent has the advantage of engaging state-owned resources, including the power of the public purse, to ingratiate the governing party to the electorate by awarding contracts and initiating social programs beneficial to potential voters.

This advantage of incumbency is further accentuated by the governing party’s ability to heighten its public profile and visibility by holding significant public events when announcing the award of such contracts and programs.

Two significant realities have emerged from the recent Caribbean elections. Firstly, the turnout was uncharacteristically low. Voter turnout among eligible voters in St. Kitts & Nevis was 64 percent. Trinidad and Tobago experienced voter turnout of 58 percent, and Jamaica, which experienced the lowest voter turnout among eligible voters in nearly 30 years, had a voter turnout of only 37 percent.

The second reality is that it appears that, in those countries, the electorate has not blamed the effects of the precipitously declining economic conditions on incumbent governments.

The Bahamas government’s mandate

Elections were last held in The Bahamas on May 10, 2017, with the Free National Movement (FNM) obtaining a five-year mandate. The House was opened on May 24, 2017 and, according to The Bahamas Constitution, the next elections must be held within 90 days of that date, no more than 23 months from now.

Typically, early elections are called when the incumbent party has a slim parliamentary majority. That is not the case here. In May 2017, the FNM won 35 of the 39 parliamentary seats. Therefore, the slim parliamentary majority argument does not justify an early election on that basis.

The last time an early election was held in The Bahamas was 1972 when the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) decided to use the general election as a referendum on independence.

Interestingly, the previous general election was also held early. It was 1968, one year after the momentous majority rule election on January 10, 1967, a significant event which is now memorialized as a public holiday, when Uriah McPhee died in office.

The PLP and United Bahamian Party had each won 18 seats, with the electoral tie broken when Labour Party Leader Randol Fawkes and independent member of Parliament Alvin Braynen supported the PLP, giving that party a fragile one-member majority in Parliament, with Braynen becoming speaker of the House whose vote would break any tie in favor of the PLP.

When McPhee died, that majority of one was lost, necessitating an election, which Premier Pindling decided would be a general election instead of a by-election.

With the sole exceptions of the early general elections of 1968 and 1972, as indicated above, The Bahamas does not have a history of early elections.

Dating as far back to the last half of the 20th Century, general elections were held in The Bahamas close to the end of each term. Also, voter turnout has historically hovered around 90 percent for the past five decades.

Are early elections imminent?

An important question then is: will the prime minister call an early election?

He recently dismissed questions about whether he is considering a snap election. He also said that his focus is on saving lives amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prime minister’s announcement not to hold an early election is consistent with the FNM’s stated commitment to set a fixed election date that would remove such decisions from the discretion of a sitting prime minister.

Early elections during the current tenure would constitute a significant breach of this commitment. Only time will tell whether his words will align with his actions, aka hypocrisy and obfuscation.

Additionally, although the prime minister indicated that he has no intention to redraw constituency boundary lines, the government recently appointed the Constituencies Commission. That action has several significant implications.

Firstly, if no changes are required, what function will the Constituencies Commission serve to review the constituency boundaries?

Secondly, how can anyone prejudicially pronounce that the constituency boundaries will not change if the Constituencies Commission is mandated and expected to submit an independent report, including its recommendations for boundary changes, to Parliament?

Thirdly, the Constitution of The Bahamas provides that, as far as reasonably practicable, constituencies should be evenly distributed regarding the number of electors.

The constitution provides for special considerations to be given to “the needs of sparsely populated areas”. On that basis, therefore, how can anyone who supports the democratic election process make such a premature and constitutionally unsupported statement that the government has no intention of redrawing the constituency boundary lines?

Conclusion

Next week, in the final part of this series, we will address the register of voters, voter registration and the potential for voter disenfranchisement consequent upon an early election.

We will also proffer our suggestions about why the government might feel compelled to call an early election in the face of the country’s disastrous fiscal calamities brought on by Hurricane Dorian and the COVID-19 pandemic.

General elections represent the most eloquent expression of the democratic process.

They provide an opportunity for the people to have a direct voice in the conduct and performance of the government during its term in office.

For the last 20 years, elections have been critically decisive referenda on the government, resulting in political parties being repeatedly voted out of office every five years.

Political parties should, therefore, be wary that the electorate will likely look askance at the governing party if voters believe such a decision will corrupt the electoral process by deviating from established elections every five years, without very compelling reasons to do so.

As Fr. Theophile Brown, our Latin teacher at St. Augustine’s College, often admonished: verbum sapienti satis est; a word to the wise is sufficient.

• 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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