The third party thrust

Are Bahamians willing to elect third-party candidates when the next general election is called?

It has been 43 years since a party other than the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) and the Free National Movement (FNM) captured seats in a general election in The Bahamas.

The Bahamas operates within a two-party political system, wherein the electorate primarily votes for two major parties that can form a majority government.

The two-party system is thought to bolster stability in governance because one party can capture a majority of votes needed to form a government, as opposed to what is seen in multi-party systems where the continuance of government might depend on the holding together of what can be tenuous coalitions.

The system is also theorized as one that compels major parties to move to the center in their political thrust so as to execute platforms that meet the needs of the majority, though political observers argue that the opposite is increasingly seen.

Enter the discussion on third parties, which in The Bahamas is a discussion that continues to attract interest as young and swing voters call for a departure from the status quo.

Voters aged 18 to 25 were the largest registered age group ahead of the 2017 general elections, and Bahamians aged 40 and under collectively made up 44.6 percent of registered voters.

In an interview with Perspective earlier this year, 100 percent of the University of Bahamas students we spoke to on their view of the country’s current political prospects, said they were not interested in either of the major parties, and would be willing to support a third party that is more closely aligned with the direction they feel the country ought to be taking.

Third parties within a two-party system are generally an offshoot of a major party, or organizations formed to promote a specific interest or ideology, and typically do not bring much influence to bear in the legislature.

It is a reality at the polls that several of the nation’s third parties are seeking to change, as they work to put themselves forward as a party that can form a majority government.

Success at this effort would require a monumental shift in the Bahamian electorate, whose loss of trust in and support for the PLP and the FNM, coupled with its confidence in the ability of a third party to form a government, would translate into a third party capturing the reins of governance.

Within the context of a two-party system in the region, it is a shift without precedent.

Where there is precedent, is in a growing level of support for third parties on the political landscape of countries with two-party systems, sparking heightened debate about the viability of transitions to multi-party political systems in those countries.

It is this growing level of support that leaders of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), the Bahamas Democratic Movement (BDM) and The Bahamas Constitution Party (BCP) say they and their parties are working to capitalize on, as they battle to capture the vote of Bahamians in the upcoming general election.

They are doing so, in part, through the use of official websites and through social media outlets, whose use is dominated by the coveted younger demographic.

Perspective spoke to DNA Leader Arinthia Komolafe, 40; BDM Leader Cassius Stuart, 49; and BCP Leader Ali McIntosh, 54, who all espouse a vision of a new Bahamas where Bahamian ownership is not reserved for a minority, and whose parties maintain that theirs is the grouping of Bahamians best suited to facilitate the realization of that vision.

‘A quiet revolution’

So potent was the influence of a third party leading into the 2012 general election, that the DNA was dubbed a spoiler therein, with its over 13,000 vote tally (8.5 percent of the vote share) viewed as one of the factors that contributed to the FNM’s defeat at the polls.

This lead to the FNM’s 2017 campaign narrative that a vote for the DNA was a vote for the PLP, tapping into voter disaffection with the Christie administration and the strength of the two-party system, relaying a message that a vote for a third party represented a “wasted vote”, whose only effect would be to keep the sitting government in office.

Voters bought into that narrative, resulting in part to the DNA, which was launched in 2011, losing over 40 percent of the support it garnered at the polls just five years earlier.

The success of this narrative, together with the influence of former Prime Minister and FNM Leader Hubert Ingraham in the final days of the 2017 campaign, are both factors Komolafe highlighted as key to the DNA’s loss of support at the polls.

A third factor was the view of some Bahamians that the DNA was not sufficiently visible, and that its candidates were not well known within the constituencies.

Speaking to the party’s process of rebuilding post-2017, and its work to increase the visibility of its candidates, Komolafe explained that “provisional candidates are to secure at least 500 signatures from members of their constituencies”.

“That amounts to roughly 10 percent of the constituent base, and we did that to get a feel of whether persons would want [the provisional candidates] to represent them, because we want the people to participate in the process as well,” she said.

At present, the DNA’s candidature profile stands at a 60/40 ratio of male to female prospects, with approximately 65 percent of the prospects being aged 40 and under.

When questioned on the candidature demographic, inclusive of those having public sector experience, Komolafe disclosed, “We have doctors on board who would have had exposure in the public service, [and] we also have persons who are former police officers.”

She added, “But by and large, the majority are private-sector individuals, so we have a mixture of engineers, persons who studied law, business people and a diverse mixture of persons.”

Komolafe said the DNA has seen “large defections” from the major parties to its organization, adding that the party receives daily online applications from individuals seeking membership.

Young Bahamians are the DNA’s target demographic, according to the party’s leader, and we questioned Komolafe on the party’s philosophy with respect to what we observe as a prevailing sentiment of ageism in The Bahamas, where older Bahamians together with their knowledge and experience, are cast aside wholesale as being obsolete.

Pointing out that “some of her greatest cheerleaders” are Bahamians 60 and older, she responded, “Our position is not that old people have to go, [but] old mindsets have to go. There has to be balance because when you look at the quiet revolution, it was a merger of the older generation with the younger generation.

“Eventually, the young generation emerged as the political leaders, but they could not have done it without the freedom fighters of the previous generation. There is a role for each generation to play its part.

“When we look at the public service, for example, what you are having are young people and not-so-young people with new mindsets that are coming to fore who understand that we need change in this country, but when they get inside the system there are persons there who know and understand the system.

“So, the idea is not to go in there and say to those persons ‘you have to go’, the idea is to sit them down and say, ‘Here is the vision, let’s see how we can work this vision together.’”

Asked to qualify her view on “old mindsets”, Komolafe pointed to a system she argues was set for Bahamians to have either hotel or government jobs, as opposed to a system geared toward true diversification that expands the ownership base for larger numbers of Bahamians.

Komolafe revealed that she will not contest the Killarney seat in the upcoming general election, and will shortly announce which New Providence seat she plans to challenge.

As for what she believes distinguishes her leadership from that of the two major parties, Komolafe stated simply, “Visionary, competent leadership.

“I live what I consider to be the Bahamian dream, but there are thousands of Bahamians who do not live the Bahamian dream, and they see it slipping away from them.

“I have no allegiance to the status quo or to oligarchic interests. It is the frustration [of the average Bahamian] that took me from the private sector into the public sector to the benefit and advantage of the Bahamian people. I come because I want you to have what I have.”

Komolafe said the DNA intends to contest all seats in the upcoming general election, and is readying itself for the possibility of an election next year.

‘Bahamians want something to believe in’

After 11 years of working to put forward a new direction for The Bahamas since its launch in 2000, the BDM dissolved ahead of the 2012 general election and joined the FNM, a decision Stuart said was driven by what appeared to be little confidence reposed by the Bahamian people in the viability of third parties.

Nine years later, in June of this year, the BDM re-assembled out of what it said is a pressing need for a clear direction for the country, and a viable alternative to the major parties.

Stuart said support for the BDM’s relaunch has been stronger than support enjoyed at any other point in the party’s history, and similarly to the DNA, disclosed that supporters and prospective candidates run the gamut of former high-ranking and rank-and-file members of the major parties.

He noted, “We have had young people come and say they want to be a part of our young democrats. We asked them how many young people they were expecting to come and they said about 10 or 15, but 65 young people showed up, so I told them we need 5,000 young members by next election, and they are aggressively working on that.”

Affirming that the BDM plans to contest all seats, Stuart advised, “Within a short while, we will launch our 39 candidates, we will tell you who our Cabinet ministers and senators will be, we will tell you who our choice of ambassadors will be; we will give you the full makeup of the government for the first time in the history of governance.”

He further indicated that a woman is likely to be chosen as deputy leader of the party when its general convention is held not long from now.

Pointing to the removal of its previous “roadblocks” due to the advent of internet technology that enables mass dissemination of messaging, Stuart acknowledged, “The Bahamian people want something to believe in [and] if they don’t have that, they default back to where they were.

“In terms of the quality of candidates coming forward, I am highly impressed, and for the first time in my political career, if elections were called and we win tomorrow, we can form a government tomorrow.”

Stuart said his party is also readying itself for the possibility of an early election, and pointed to “vision” as the difference between him and the leaders of the major parties.

He maintained that the country’s “failed” economic model must be built to enable Bahamians to see a clear path to success regardless of who and where they are.

The BDM has carried out feeding initiatives to vulnerable residents in the current COVID-19 climate, with Stuart stressing, “Our country is now at a critical crossroads.

“We need to rebuild our country and in order to do that we need the best minds, and so our call for the BDM is for the best of the best to come forward.”

‘We continue to stand’

The BCP has contested elections in The Bahamas since 2002 following its official launch in 1999, and despite its showing at the polls over the years, McIntosh said the organization is not deterred, and is in talks with other political groupings as it works to promote a return to good governance.

McIntosh is currently eyeing the North Abaco seat, and admitted that securing a full slate of candidates has been challenging, as there is a limited pool of prospects being wooed by growing numbers of political groupings.

Nevertheless, the BCP leader said candidate interviews continue and the party plans to contest all seats, pointing to its ground work which suggests that now could be the strongest possible time in the country’s history for third parties to be successful at the polls.

As to the BCP’s showing in contested elections, McIntosh recalled personal encouragement from former Prime Minister Lynden Pindling not to give up her and her party’s fight, and asserted, “If both parties have gone awry from the original plan, we have to stand because we know that the day will come as we are in now, where people are saying they are tired of the PLP and the FNM.

“They are tired because the original intent and the focus – which should be empowering the Bahamian people and bringing them to a level of prosperity – is out of the door, and so the BCP says we continue to stand, and our stand is the message that we bring, not just the votes.

“We hope that the people can vote for our agenda and put us in governance, but our stand is still the same, and we must stand.”

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