Amid corruption allegations, a fractured opposition and an unfinished $4.2 billion resort more than a decade in the making, Wednesday’s national election in the Bahamas is shaping up to be a close call, political observers say.
Even though there are just 180,000 registered voters out of 400,000 residents in the small chain of islands off the coast of Florida, confusion during last week’s early voting has set off alarm bells for observers worried about vote fraud.
The Bahamas, which typically has one of the highest voter turnouts in the region, is choosing between retaining Prime Minister Perry Christie’s governing Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) or reviving the main opposition, the Free National Movement (FNM), which had been in power before Christie’s government took over in 2012. A third party, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), played an outsized role in 2012 by attracting enough votes to help the PLP into office but is unlikely to have much of an effect this time around, experts say.
“They’ve missed so many opportunities to really distinguish themselves from the two major parties and present themselves as a viable alternative to the current Progressive Liberal Party government,” said Darron Cash, a former Free National Movement chairman. “This is an election between the PLP and the FNM.”
For people such as Stephanie Cox, a legal assistant in Grand Bahama, there’s really no choice at all. Grand Bahama has not fully rebounded from Hurricane Matthew in October and the Bahamian economy had been struggling even before that. She’s fed up with the current government.
“We are suffering from crime, corruption and poverty,” she said. “We have been wiped out financially. There are too many political favors for friends, lovers and families while others suffer. It’s time for a change.”
Bad governance and corruption are issues, according to a 2014 Inter-American Development Bank-financed survey revealing Bahamians’ frustrations. Other top concerns: high unemployment and how money is being spent by the government from a new value-added tax on goods and services.
Thirty-nine seats in the House of Assembly are up for grabs in the election. The party that wins the majority of the seats forms the government.
“I believe only a few seats will separate the winners from the losers,” said George Smith, a real estate broker and former Progressive Liberal Party minister with a reputation for predicting the outcome of past elections. “There are six seats to watch and based on my evaluation, the winner of the majority of those seats will form the next government.”
The Organization of American States, the 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom) regional grouping and the Commonwealth Observer Group will all monitor the vote for signs of problems on Wednesday.
Caribbean watchers are also waiting to see whether the Bahamas will follow the trend in the English-speaking Caribbean of ousting the party in power. In the last two years, the incumbents in Trinidad, Jamaica, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Guyana, Montserrat and nearby Turks and Caicos all lost at the polls.
Philip Galanis, a former Progressive Liberal Party minister who writes the weekly column “Consider This” in the Nassau Guardian, says party loyalists will play a critical role in deciding who governs the Bahamas for the next five years.
But Galanis, unlike some observers, also believes that undecided and swing voters will help decide the winners.
“People are slowly making up their minds,” he said. “A large number of people are going to do so on Election Day because they are so angry, because they are so frustrated and because they just don’t like the offerings they are being presented . Many people do not feel they have a clear choice.”
For some, Christie, a veteran politician who is completing his second term as prime minister, has extended his stay in power too long, failed to rein in crime, allowed double-digit unemployment to continue and failed to give scandal-ridden cabinet minsters their walking papers. Known for invoking God in his speeches, Christie, 73, was criticized earlier this year after defiantly brandishing his middle finger to show supporters his response to an accusation that he used his powerful position to acquire ownership in a condo complex.
He has since backed away from the offensive gesture. “Would I do that again? The answer is no,” Christie said, during an address in parliament.
The controversy was the latest in a series of scandals that have rocked the Christie government. Last month, the local Tribune newspaper reported that education minister Jerome Fitzgerald solicited millions of dollars in brokerage, trucking and limousine contracts for his family’s business from Baha Mar, the multi-billion dollar mega resort on New Providence that has been plagued by financial problems, legal wranglings and delays.
The resort, first promised by the Progressive Liberal Party over a decade ago, still isn’t finished, though it held a ribbon cutting ceremony on April 21 for the first hotel in the complex and began allowing guests to make reservations for arrival on Monday – two days before the elections.
The Tribune said leaked emails from the server of the complex’s original general contractors show that Fitzgerald tried to secure the lucrative contracts and also requested $20,000 a month from Baha Mar’s original developer Sarkis Izmirlian for help with treatment for his sick father.
Fitzgerald denied the allegations in a statement saying, “I have no contract with Baha Mar or any of its affiliates.”
Cash, the former chairman of the opposition FNM party, said the damage to voters’ perception of the Christie government is too great to overcome: “The stench of corruption is overpowering for too many voters.”
But the FNM may not offer what voters want, either.
In December, seven FNM members in parliament declared no confidence in their leader, Dr. Hubert Minnis. Though Minnis managed to retain his power, the challenge divided the party, leading Christie to warn Bahamians that they “are risking placing this country in the hands of people who can’t even keep a small group together.”
Last week in the final stretch of campaigning, Minnis turned to a familiar name to help rally the FNM’s base: former party leader and three-time Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham.
“There is no doubt that his presence will energize the FNM,” Smith, the former Progressive Liberal Party minister said. “But because he is doing it, people will compare him to Minnis. Voters like to know that the man at the top of the ticket is a closer, and Minnis doesn’t seem to be that . He’s a scientist and politics is an art, an art of the possibilities and he doesn’t seem to sell those possibilities well.”
Ingraham compared his presence on the campaign trail to that of former U.S. President Bill Clinton who gave former President Barack Obama a hand in 2012.
Despite being a former Progressive Liberal Party chairman, Raynard Rigby, said the momentum is building for a change in power.
“The FNM crowds appear to be enthusiastic and images of infighting have disappeared,” Rigby said.“ People are disappointed in the economy, they are disappointed in the level of crime that still exists in the country . .there is also some feelings of Christie fatigue.”
But Smith thinks Bahamians will choose continuity over change.
“The one consistent thing that has always guided elections in the Bahamas from when we had our first election in 1729 is this thing called stability,” he said. “In spite of the issues, which may appear in favor of one party or the other, there is this deep-rooted belief that as long as the Bahamas remains stable as a country, we will eventually work our problems out. And I believe the Bahamian people at this stage believe that the party best capable of providing that stability despite the problems we have is the Progressive Liberal Party.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day's top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter