Red Flags

The Bahamian people should not downplay troubling events this term

Nowadays, Bahamians have become so disgusted with the antics of politicians, that they strive to block out what is happening so as to lessen their daily frustrations, reasoning that they will simply deal with offending politicians at the polls when the time comes.

“Voting them out” is seen as an overarching panacea that might not make everything perfect, but will at least mete out payback to governing parties that take the people and the power the people gave them, for granted.

While punishing a governing party with a defeat at the polls might solve some immediate problems, a larger problem comes in when Bahamians fail to appreciate the ways in which assaults on democracy by a governing party – if responded to passively or with indifference – send a message to successive administrations that they can get away with at least those assaults or worse, when it is their turn.

In a 2018 US opinion piece in the UK Guardian by Steven Levitzky and Daniel Ziblatt entitled, “This is how democracies die”, the authors argued, “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive.

“With a classic coup d’état, as in Pinochet’s Chile, the death of a democracy is immediate and evident to all. The presidential palace burns. The president is killed, imprisoned or shipped off into exile. The constitution is suspended or scrapped.

“On the electoral road, none of these things happen. There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.

“Citizens continue to criticize the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People do not immediately realize what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy.

“Because there is no single moment – no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution – in which the regime obviously crosses the line into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf.

“Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.”

The strength of a democracy is known by how the citizenry responds to tests thereto.

Incidents as well as repeated declarations to Parliament over the last nearly four years of the Minnis administration have in some ways represented an unprecedented pushing of the envelope with respect to the nation’s democracy, and how elected officials in our democracy ought to interact with the Bahamian people.

These events represent red flags to dangers that can lie ahead if the citizenry fails to recognize their gravity and their implications.

The military and a protest

There was both suspicion and concern about the appearance of an armored military vehicle and armed marines around the time that prison officers peacefully assembled outside the Ministry of National Security back on March 17.

National Security Minister Marvin Dames expressed unseemly indignation at public concern about what appeared to be a military response to Bahamians – in this case uniformed prison officers – traveling to an office that bears their flag to peacefully express their concerns about longstanding employment issues.

Dismissing public concerns as “unnecessary alarm”, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force (RBDF) in a statement said, “the public is advised that the simulated use of its armored vehicle and armed personnel was not a defensive posture taken against any particular actor, but an exercise to ensure the alertness and responsiveness to potential threat(s) posed against the facility which houses the honorable minister of national security and the Commander Defence Force.”

It is one gargantuan coincidence that the RBDF, whose commodore is answerable to the minister, would decide to perform such an exercise around the same time that a large number of prison officers traveled to the ministry.

We refer to Dames’ reaction to public concern as unseemly because anyone with an understanding of the role of the military in a democracy and an appreciation of how the military has been used in countries to intimidate the citizenry, would be justifiably alarmed at a perceived show of military force in response to Bahamians peacefully expressing a desire to meet with an elected official whose authority ultimately comes from the Bahamian people.

The Defense Act states that the RBDF is charged with the defense of The Bahamas; the protection of the territorial integrity of The Bahamas; the patrol of the waters of The Bahamas; generally with assistance and relief in times of disaster; the maintenance of order in The Bahamas in conjunction with the law enforcement agencies of The Bahamas; and with such other duties as may from time to time be determined by the Security Council.

Section 8(2) of the Defense Act states: “The authority for the command, discipline, and administration of the Defence Force shall, subject to subsection (1), be exercised by the Minister.”

And Section 9 of the act designates the members of the Security Council as “the prime minister (chairman); the minister responsible for defense; such other ministers as may be appointed by the prime minister; and such other persons as may be appointed by the prime minister for such periods, as he shall specify.”

In effect, the RBDF does not act on its own accord, but is subject to the dictates of the government of the day.

As an aside, it is interesting that when this RBDF exercise was held, it was not done to simulate defense against potential incursions on what might be considered more potent targets of enemy insurgents, such as the Parliament, the Cabinet Office, the Office of the Prime Minister or Government House.

We cannot think of another time when such an exercise was performed using the explanation given by the RBDF.

Nevertheless, the responsible thing would have been to issue an advisory ahead of time for a pre-planned military drill of this kind, so that the public would not be rightfully alarmed by the sight of an armored military vehicle on public streets when the country is not at war, under attack by foreign elements, or in the midst of large-scale riots.

Even the show of force by members of the Royal Bahamas Police Force responding to the prison officers’ peaceful presence was viewed as excessive by observers, particularly since prison officers – like police officers – are all uniformed officers charged with protecting and not harming the public and its interests.

Beyond this incident and as a general point, the Bahamian people ought to always pay very close attention to the red flag of a government using the armed forces to send a message to those it views as adversaries or opponents.

And whenever the same appears to have taken place, ministers responsible ought always be ready to respond dispassionately to the public’s concerns, because the public’s concerns as well as the country’s democracy, take precedence at all times.

 ‘I will be PM again’

When Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis stands in Parliament and speaks of a successive term in office as though it is a foregone conclusion, many people brush off his commentary as being wishful thinking or useless political banter.

If his comments were being made on the campaign trail, it would be acceptable electioneering to express confidence in a victory at the polls.

But when the prime minister stands in the seat of the people’s electoral power – the Parliament – and essentially declares that the will of the people is the will of the prime minister, it is one of the most flagrant ways in which a prime minister can disrespect the sacredness of the people’s vote in their democracy.

It is also a brazen display of lack of humility, since no party or candidate is entitled to re-election, and victory at the polls in a free and fair election comes about by what the majority freely decides, not by the outcome the prime minister wants declared.

Instead of brushing off Minnis’ consistent declaration as being delusional or nonsense talk, the Bahamian people should consider the import of his apparently fervent desire to hold on to the reigns of power.

If the prime minister is so enraptured with the idea of a second term that he is speaking about it as though a second term already exists, one has to question just how far the prime minister might be willing to go to ensure his version of reality becomes an actuality.

Though a stable democracy, The Bahamas has a history of instances of impropriety in the electoral process.

Elections in The Bahamas are not declared free and fair by chance, but because of diligence by public officials, opposition parties and the general public in ensuring that freedom and fairness in the process is maintained.

We make no accusation of impropriety at this stage, but rather assert that a prime minister’s consistent departure from democratic norms by declaring with certainty in Parliament an election outcome well before an election is held, is a red flag that the Bahamian people ought not trivialize.

Moreover, Minnis’ repeatedly stated desire to have no opposition members elected, going further to denigrate current opposition members – and by extension the Bahamians they represent – as “contaminants”, is reminiscent of what Levitzky and Ziblatt coined as “elected autocrats” who “maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.”

We say this because the opposition is a foundational facet of our democracy.

It is bad for democracy to have a governing party hold all seats in the legislature, and to express a desire for the eradication of an opposition in the highest branch of government, is perhaps one of the most glaring indications that democracy for the prime minister is an inconvenience he would just as well do without if he could.

Democracy, however, is what the Bahamian people and The Bahamas absolutely cannot do without.

The people’s voice in
the people’s square

Contrary to misunderstanding stemming from the recent arrest of members of the Democratic National Alliance, the Penal Code of The Bahamas does not state that a permit or permission from the Commissioner of Police is required to hold a protest or a demonstration.

It is important for the public to know that when Cabinet ministers recently admonished that “no one is above the law”, there is no law that makes it an offense to peacefully assemble in a public place without a permit.

What the Penal Code does state is that prior police permission is required for events that would utilize public roads or public places for processions, which in this country most often come in the form of marches, motorcades, funeral and religious processions and sporting activities including marathons and charity walkathons.

Unlawful Assembly in the Penal Code is designated as either a procession without prior police permission, or an assembly wherein participants are acting tumultuously or unreasonably inciting others to so act, causing fear to neighboring people.

A barricading off of Parliament Square this term has been interpreted by some as representative of a government that will not abide the people’s voice, and that wants to distance itself from the people who put them in office.

A stinging irony is that when candidates want to be elected, they want to get as close to the Bahamian people as possible, pressing the flesh, shaking hands, entering homes and people’s personal spaces to make the case for the opportunity to serve.

Yet once elected, those same Bahamians are viewed as a potential threat to the candidates they elected, whenever the people grow unhappy with the level of service their hired servants are providing.

So important was the expanding of freedom to protest in the people’s square, that the British government brought an amendment in 2014 to provisions of legislation which were considered to impose unnecessary restrictions on the right to peaceful protest around the Houses of Parliament.

Peaceful protests at the people’s seat of power are part and parcel of a vibrant democracy, and are ways the citizenry can make its voice heard beyond a vote once every five years.

Such protests should always be free of unnecessary encumbrance, and a government committed to democracy will welcome such expressions by the citizenry, even when the dissent is heavy.

There is a saying that if you want to know a man, give him power.

From its failure to enact promised legislation placing new limits on the executive, to routine undemocratic utterances and behaviors, to an unwillingness to bring about parliamentary independence, to an addiction to emergency powers, the administration has thrown up red flags that create reasonable cause for pause ahead of the next general election.

Those red flags make it fair to ask how much further the envelope might be pushed if these actions are rewarded with a second term.

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