In 1996 I was in Washington, D.C., where I worked in the Bahamas Embassy as an economic attaché while simultaneously attending the George Washington University in pursuit of a Master’s degree.
One day, my mother called me to say that Hubert Ingraham, the then Prime Minister, wanted to know if I was prepared to run in the upcoming election. At the time she told him I had been preparing all my life to do so.
I didn’t quite prepare all my life to participate in politics, but my mother was right in that, I had known for much of my life that I would one day enter that arena. I returned to The Bahamas soon after that call, ran in the 1997 general election to represent the Fort Charlotte constituency, and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history. 1997 was my first frontline political campaign. I would go on to participate in three others. Over the space of twenty years, I saw political campaigning in The Bahamas up close and extremely personal. It was exciting, intriguing, animating and compelling. No one who has had the experience walks away from it unchanged. Nevertheless, political campaigns in this country can leave much to be desired. There are at least three aspects of it that I find unfortunate.
First, the expensive paraphernalia fest. We spend millions of dollars on t-shirts, caps, buttons, bags, pompoms, key chains, etc. each election cycle. Why? Because voters crave them, and they stamp our brand on anyone or thing wearing them. So outrageous are their popularity that you can lose votes failing to get paraphernalia to the right people – your most ardent supporters. On the other hand, they can also get you in trouble because being liberal with their distribution means that sometimes our opponents can get them and use them to disguise themselves as supporters during door-to-door campaigns or during strategic campaign meetings. What a web! Getting rid of paraphernalia would save campaigns millions of dollars and avoid the need to beg donors; mostly foreigners; to fund them. They would also eradicate some of the other nuisances that come along with them that I mentioned before. Outside of lawfully prohibiting them, no politician in this country would have the nerve to end using them; especially if the other sides do not commit to the same. So, in the upcoming election, you know what to expect – a neatly folded t-shirt with cap on top and pompom on the side. If you are lucky, you will get two; one for the rally before election day, and the other for election day. Woo! Hoo!
Second, the revved up treating request fest. We often accuse politicians of buying votes; some do. However, the truth is, in many more instances voters sell their votes. In my experience, politicians do not approach voters asking what they would have to do to get their vote; an experienced politician knows better than to begin campaigning with something that will cost them money. Such a man or woman wants to stay in the realm of community work, because at least that request won’t cost them personally. More often than not, when you approach certain voters, they begin with, “Chile, I doin’ for who can do for me,” the exact words of a woman who greeted me when I approached her and asked how she was doing years ago was, “Chile, I right here with these broke up glasses…” Hmmm. Needless to say, I came to know why she had ‘broke up” glasses and how much they would cost to be repaired. I also lost that vote, probably because I was not in the ‘glasses fixing’ business. During my time and in my experience, I have been asked to sign $25,000 bail, bury dead or dying family members, lend money, pay for weddings, secure houses, find government jobs, tell private people what to do with their businesses and much more. It’s a literal circus!
Campaigns in our country too often become what an individual can personally gain from a politician. And why not? For decades, politicians have been all too eager to respond to the requests of those who ask, making them believe that this was the way it worked. In the end, voters found themselves sold short because what they got at election time was all they would ever get, treat or trick. Is there no wonder that so many are cynical? They might want to explore the role they played in that development however, as I have often heard that you reap what you sow.
Third, the hated impulse you feel to pander to every soul. By nature, I like to be candid with people, but in our politics, people do not want to hear anything but ‘yes’ when it comes to their requests. To say, “I can’t do that,” or “that’s not possible,” or “I will see,” is tantamount to saying, “keep your vote, I don’t want it.” One colleague of mine used to say, “You gotta give ‘em hope.” Unfortunately, I subscribed then and still to the notion that “hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and the last thing I wanted was for people to see me later in life and call me a liar because I promised something I could not deliver, after all, as my mother always says, “you live to live again.” Nevertheless, the game truly belongs to bull-skaters and bridge-sellers because during the campaign, honesty is often perceived as heartlessness or cruelty. I hated the impulse to pander and I defied it with a batting average of 50/50. Maybe I would have done better if I played the game,.
Both major political parties have launched their 2022 campaigns, notwithstanding we have a full eight hundred plus days to go. Look out! It is going to be a long ‘silly season’. Of course, it will have its usual thrills – I am sure, but for those in the thick of it, these three things will be theirs to enjoy. I hope for better this election season but wouldn’t wager a bet. Habits in politics, like in life, are hard task-masters and difficult to break.
• Zhivargo Laing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.