Bahamians by the thousands will today head to the polls in a general election that is taking place eight months before one was constitutionally due, and during the most unprecedented of times as the country battles a deadly COVID-19 wave, and many Bahamians continue to struggle through challenging economic circumstances.
Two hundred and twenty-five candidates are on the ballots in 39 constituencies – 24 on New Providence and 15 on the Family Islands.
The constituency boundaries are unchanged from 2017 as the Boundaries Commission Report was never tabled in Parliament.
There are 194,526 registered voters on what is now a permanent register. In 2017, there were 181,543 voters.
There were roughly 19,000 people registered for the advanced poll, which took place last week, but there is no indication how many of them voted.
Since the 2002 election, elections have always been held in May in The Bahamas.
In every election since 2002, voters have changed their government.
Given that the 2021 election is being held during a violent third wave of COVID-19, some voters worry that voting might not be safe, especially given the long lines and little social distancing at some of the advanced poll sites last week.
Many will be watching to see whether voter turnout remains high, as it has traditionally been in general elections in The Bahamas.
At 88.3 percent, voter turnout in 2017 was the lowest rate seen since the general election in 1987, when 87.9 percent of eligible voters voted.
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis has not said why he chose to call an election during the height of the COVID crisis, telling a Nassau Guardian reporter on Nomination Day, “As we proceed, you will see.”
Minnis did say on August 19 that there is a need for a new mandate as the next group to form a government will have to make important decisions to steer The Bahamas beyond the COVID-19 crisis.
In making closing arguments for why the Free National Movement (FNM) – which won 35 of the parliamentary seats in 2017 – ought to be re-elected, Minnis and the FNM have touted his leadership as being responsible for keeping the country stable during the crisis.
Minnis said his leadership has saved lives and had the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) been in office this term, many more people would have died.
Attempting to justify why significant promises made in 2017 have not been fulfilled, Minnis and the FNM have repeatedly pointed out that no other Bahamian prime minister or administration has been faced with a pandemic or a hurricane as deadly and destructive as Hurricane Dorian, which struck just over two years ago, pummeling large swaths of Abaco and Grand Bahama.
In seeking to make their case for re-election, they have also tried to keep the focus on PLP Leader Philip Brave Davis, calling him unfit for high office, and demonizing him over his previous role as a criminal attorney.
Following the PLP’s near annihilation at the polls in 2017, the party’s leadership commissioned an independent examination into reasons for the loss.
The researcher’s conclusions were not surprising: fatigue of former Prime Minister Perry Christie, the failure to address “wrongdoing” of Cabinet ministers and persistent corruption perceptions were all identified as powerful contributing factors to the defeat.
In June of that year, Exumas and Ragged Island MP Chester Cooper, one of only four PLP candidates to win, charged that the party lost the general election because it “protected the interest of the party over the interest of the nation”, and urged party members to make a “sincere and humble apology and repentance” to its supporters and the country.
Not long after the retirement of Christie from public life, Davis, who had been deputy prime minister, won the party’s leadership, pledging to institute reforms and shore up the PLP’s image.
But Minnis and the FNM are seeking to convince voters that the PLP they rejected four and a half years ago is the “same old PLP”, and that its “new day” campaign slogan is nothing but a gimmick.
“The PLP’s reputation is in such bad shape that every election now they have to call themselves new,” the prime minister has said at his party’s various drive-in rallies.
“They have to do this because people have such bad memories of all the years of PLP neglect, corruption and scandals.”
In making his closing arguments, Minnis warned, “Putting Brave in charge of The Bahamas would reverse all the progress made for our country by successive FNM administrations. Brave was there by Christie’s side for all those bad decisions Perry made when he was prime minister.
“A vote for Brave is a return to the Christie years. And I know The Bahamas does not want that.”
Pledges and realities
For their part, Davis and the PLP contend that the Minnis administration has been a complete failure and that they have sound plans to address the COVID crisis, stabilize government revenue and grow the economy.
In his own closing arguments, Davis declared, “For four-plus years, we’ve been stuck with no real progress.”
On Tuesday, he said, “Good jobs are hard to find, the cost of living is crushing people, yet this government is getting ready to raise taxes again on the poor and middle class.”
Stating that there is so much untapped potential in The Bahamas, he pledged, “We’re going to provide training, support and resources to a whole new generation of entrepreneurs, while at the same time expanding opportunities not just in tourism but in renewable energy, culture, sports, the creative industries and more.”
Both parties promise to set up and resource a Sovereign Wealth Fund, make better use of natural resources, cause for an increase in minimum wage, expand National Health Insurance, improve healthcare capacity and establish a cannabis industry.
The PLP said it would decrease value-added tax from 12 percent to 10 percent.
The FNM said it would provide more concessions for first-time homeowners.
Both parties promise to foster greater small and medium-sized business ownership.
Over the course of the last month and in the weeks leading up to the House being dissolved on August 19, credible sources in both major political parties reported that internal polling was showing a substantial number of undecided voters.
Those sources also told us that the polling was showing generally low enthusiasm for both leaders. Many voters have expressed that while they wish to vote against the FNM, they are not motivated to vote PLP.
There is, of course, no way of knowing until after the polls close at 6 p.m. today what impact that attitude and hesitancy will have on the outcome of the general election.
For the Minnis administration, this term has been fraught with significant challenges.
The Inter-American Development Bank put damage and loss from Hurricane Dorian in The Bahamas at $3.4 billion.
Hurricane Irma in September 2017 had also presented major challenges, though not on the scale of Dorian.
The onslaught of COVID-19 effectively shut down the tourism industry for a great portion of 2020. The former director of labor estimated that unemployment was in the region of 40 percent.
Though tourism has restarted, the numbers seen up to the end of June represented 70 percent of 2019 numbers, according to the tourism minister.
Whichever party forms the government come tomorrow, it will meet daunting fiscal realities.
The Ministry of Finance recently reported that the fiscal deficit was $1.3 billion at the end of the 2020/2021 fiscal year. The national debt was at $10.4 billion.
The ministry said the government expects to forego up to $40 million in revenue to maintain and expand employment opportunities through tax credits for businesses aimed at creating up to 2,500 new jobs. It said small businesses will also benefit from new duty concessions.
But while Minnis has asked for a new mandate and has already declared victory – referring repeatedly to FNM candidates as “new” members of Parliament – PLP Deputy Leader Chester Cooper said under no circumstances should the FNM be given a new mandate.
“Too much has gone wrong,” said Cooper during a virtual rally on Tuesday night. “We have endured too much indignity from one man.”
With all the cases put to the Bahamian people, it is now time for them to choose which party to entrust with the management of their affairs.
We await their verdict.