National Review

The final lap

Daunting challenges, dismal prospects as term wanes

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis will today seek, and is all but guaranteed, to receive parliamentary approval to extend his emergency powers to May 23, some 14 months after the governor general issued an initial state of emergency proclamation following the recording of the first case of COVID-19 in The Bahamas.

We have no doubt that Minnis, the competent authority in law, genuinely wishes to see this pandemic brought under control, but his management of the crisis has been far from exceptional, with no evidence that certain decisions have been based on science and facts, and an uneven application of some of the restrictions put in place.

As Minnis continues to indefinitely suspend our civil liberties and hold on to the exclusive authority to do so, make no mistake about it, he is also quietly moving into election mode. 

Politically, the state of emergency provides him and his governing party with an advantage. 

Prospective candidates who are not MPs or senators cannot move around the islands without negative COVID test results. Given that the Free National Movement (FNM) has 33 MPs and the Official Opposition has five, that gives the governing party an edge. 

Additionally, ongoing curfews on New Providence and Grand Bahama are undoubtedly playing a role in reduced crime levels. While government and police force officials fail to acknowledge this, anyone with common sense could easily understand why this is so.

The government can count reduced crime as one of its accomplishments this term. 

It will no doubt be a major talking point ahead of the next election.

Minnis’ move to get and keep COVID-19 under control is running parallel to his quiet campaign efforts.

As prime minister, his responsibility, of course, extends beyond New Providence and Grand Bahama, the country’s major population centers. In recent weeks, Minnis has upped his visibility on islands across the archipelago.

He opened a bridge in North Andros last weekend; earlier in the month, he opened a bridge in Spanish Wells, Eleuthera; days earlier, he was in Mayaguana, where he visited the island’s police station to “encourage officers” and toured the island’s new administrative office; on Christmas Day, he was in Inagua, where he visited more law enforcement officers and presented Christmas gifts to the residents; in December, he was in Cat Island for the signing of a water supply contract; a couple days before that, he was in Long Island for the official opening of a road and was in Abaco for the ground breaking ceremony of a community center and hurricane shelter.

Those are just some of his recent stops during the pandemic.

Minnis has been a prime minister on the move with face-to-face interaction with residents across The Bahamas.

There is no faulting him for that, but the opposition should know and should understand that Minnis is making ready for when he calls an election. He is fulfilling duties as prime minister but also increasing his contact and spreading his message as FNM leader.

He recognizes no doubt that this election season will be a different kind of season, especially if he calls an early election, which some political observers expect him to do.

Exactly a year ago, prior to COVID-19 reaching our shores, Minnis declared that the victory train had left the gate. That train, if it ever in fact existed beyond his own imagination, has been derailed by the brutal events of 2020, which have spilled into this new year.

While his party is unable to host any rallies anytime soon, the prime minister no doubt understands that he needs to prepare to win in other ways.

We can expect Minnis to continue his very aggressive movements through the islands in the coming months as he prepares to go back to the people for a fresh mandate.

For Minnis and the FNM, this has been a term of low achievement.

Their challenge will be to convince voters that their failure to fulfill certain key pledges was due, not to their incompetence or lack of effort, but to circumstances beyond their control — initially a worse than expected state of fiscal affairs – Hurricane Irma in September 2017, the more powerful and deadly Hurricane Dorian in September 2019 and the vicious COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to present daunting challenges for the government and for Bahamians.

The big question will be, given the extraordinary circumstances that befell them, how much of a pass will voters be prepared to give Minnis and the FNM come Election Day?

Checked out

Many voters have long “checked out” from the current administration. 

A post from a regular Facebook user yesterday encapsulated how many are feeling: “Anyone else ready to dip their thumb in ink?” she asked.

Another user asked: “For what alternative?”

The original Facebook user, a 30-something-year-old, responded: “Whatever alternative there is.”

In every election since 2002, this has been the mindset of so many voters. Frustrated by what they have had in the preceding five years, they are willing to go with whatever alternative exists, and so the two major political parties, the FNM and the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), have been playing musical chairs with the seats of power for nearly two decades.

Minnis thinks he can break this cycle. 

A key difficulty he faced when Dorian rolled in and the COVID-19 storm came just a few months later, is that the tremendous goodwill, which he and the FNM came to power with in 2017, was so quickly eroded as they had gotten off to an incredibly slow start.

Their refrain that they met the cupboard bare was not enough to satisfy voters whose expectations were set unreasonably high by a group of men and women who made promises beyond their capacity to fulfill.

Though not bread and butter pledges, certain commitments made by Minnis on the campaign trail resonated: Recall system for MPs, term limit for prime minister, set election date, a primary election where parliamentary candidates would be determined by constituents, local government for New Providence.

Most significantly were the promises to rein in corruption and get government finances in order.

The country’s finances were in such a poor position, government officials said, that an early action of the Minnis administration was to raise value-added-tax (VAT) in 2018 from the 7.5 percent introduced by the Christie administration to 12 percent.

At the time of VAT’s introduction in 2015, Minnis and the FNM excoriated the then-government, declaring it was placing an unconscionable burden on the backs of the poor.

And so, many Bahamians felt betrayed by the Minnis administration early in the term. Efforts by the government to explain why the move was absolutely necessary did little to encourage understanding and acceptance among the population.

But Minnis and his Cabinet banked on the fact that they had four more years to show the Bahamian people how the increased taxation was of overall benefit to them and the country.

With expectations unmet, and with many Bahamians realizing that their personal economic circumstances were unchanged, despite the fact that the country’s main industry, tourism, experienced a record-breaking year in 2019, disillusionment set in quickly.

The tourism minister, Dionisio D’Aguilar, said last January, “Were it not for Hurricane Dorian, it would have been an off the chart year.”

The twin crises of Dorian and COVID coming at a time when government debt was continuing to balloon, made the Minnis administration increasingly unpopular.

Those calamitous events were of course not the making of Minnis or his government, but they have worsened already waning prospects for the government.

Shuttered businesses over long periods, astoundingly high unemployment levels, restrictions instituted to fight the coronavirus and lingering demands of a post-hurricane recovery make for a nightmarish scenario for the current administration.

Challenges

The most urgent crisis before the country today relates to the state of the national economy, government finances, and the uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

At the end of September 2020, government debt was nearing $9 billion. In the first quarter of 2020/2021, the Minnis administration had borrowed just under $1 billion. The situation has continued to deteriorate.

Yesterday, the International Monetary Fund said in a statement in relation to its 2020 Article IV Consultation with The Bahamas: “Real GDP is projected to contract by 16.2 percent in 2020, followed by a modest rebound of two percent in 2021, and to converge back to its pre-pandemic level only by 2024. Public debt is expected to jump to almost 90 percent of GDP by 2021 and to remain more than 22 percentage points above its pre-pandemic level over the medium term.”

In 2021, the government will need to demonstrate that we are at least turning the corner in getting the economy moving again. The incredible challenge in accomplishing that is much of what needs to be done before any meaningful flicker appears on the national horizon is out of the control of the government.

With North America serving as this nation’s key tourism market, the United States, which continues to experience a surge in cases, will need to get the pandemic under control. We are at the mercy of the decisions taken in the United States.

The recent decision by the new US president, Joseph R. Biden, regarding a quarantine requirement for people entering the United States, and the requirement that they have a negative COVID test result, felt like a kick in the stomach for The Bahamas, and for the region, but we would, in the long run, benefit tremendously from America finally getting the pandemic in hand.

The wait may prove excruciating and may be even more detrimental for what appears to be a waning possibility of the FNM’s re-election.

While the pace of our recovering is largely dependent on the pace of America’s, this by no means suggests that our government should sit on its hands.

Minnis has received recommendations of the Economic Recovery Committee he appointed, and he has since appointed economic advisors, but if tourism fails to return in coming months beyond a trickle, our circumstances would become even more dire.

We continue to talk about diversification and the need to better exploit our natural resources, but as one member of Parliament observed in a conversation with National Review this week, “The goose that lays the golden egg is still the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Nearly a year into the pandemic and nearly four years into the term of a Minnis government, frustration among Bahamians is at an all time high.

While voters have repeatedly proven that their vote is against the incumbent administration, and not a vote for the alternative, Minnis and the FNM may benefit from the public’s seeming lack of enthusiasm for Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis and the PLP.

Many voters quite literally feel wedged between a boulder and a very hard place.

We are still early in the campaign season, but Davis, who is eyeing the prime ministership, does not inspire a whole lot of confidence; neither does Minnis.

But while disaffection is widespread, we do not think the level of angst that existed toward the power-hungry Perry Christie in the months before the 2017 vote currently exists toward Minnis. 

The PLP’s own post-election report determined that Christie and the corruption perception were the most significant reasons for the party’s humiliating loss at the polls.

Growing disenchantment over a delayed economic recovering and the absence of available jobs, however, could swing the pendulum in the PLP’s favor. 

And so, 2021 will be a key year for the FNM.

It is near impossible to rebuild damaged credibility at this point, and with dismal economic prospects, Minnis and his party face a steep and unrelenting climb.

If they are able to convince voters to give them another term, it would be an achievement of epic proportions. 

For now, it appears a goal that could very well be beyond reach.

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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