So, in the parlance of the day: Papa done ring da bell.
Whatever that means.
Don’t get me wrong. I can talk the talk like any other Bahamian in 2012. Papa = the current prime minister, Hubert Ingraham. “The Bell” = the announcement of a date for the next general election. I know how to translate the statement.
I just don’t know what it means.
Here’s why. Some time ago, I wrote up my own manifesto (since the political parties vying for leadership of the country hadn’t seen fit to share any of their promises or policies for the next five years) as a voter, a participant in a process that is commonly called “democratic”. Since that time, others have joined me in making similar statements, and a few voices have called for our leaders and other politicians to have the balls to step out from behind their carefully crafted propaganda and open themselves up to discussions of issues with reasonable citizens.
But, disappointingly, and with one important exception (Branville McCartney of the DNA) they haven’t.
And this, to my mind, does not bode well for our future. This is, after all, not like any other election year. For one thing, there are three major parties contesting the general election, a broad slate of independents, and a few fringe parties as well; for another, the two oldest parties are in fact comprised of the political parties that have made some impact over the past twenty years—the BDM in the case of the FNM, the NDP in the case of the PLP, and the CDR split between the two. Even the DNA has absorbed at least one extant party into its ranks: Rodney Moncur’s Worker’s Party. For another thing, for any dispassionate person, it is very unclear who is likely to win the next election. Popular support for both parties seems to have declined since 2007 and 2002. Back then, both the FNM and the PLP had trouble finding public spaces that were large enough to hold the assemblies of their supporters, and ended up taking turns on Clifford Park itself, which was packed with bodies sporting the shirts of the party colours: red for the FNM, yellow for the PLP. This season, however, the largest gatherings in Nassau have taken place on beaches—which, thanks to the generosity of both parties in giving away Bahamian beachfront property to foreign investors, are relatively small spaces in our city-island. This past Easter Monday, the FNM repaired to the Montagu foreshore, (for which it seems to have no trouble taking credit, but which was actually renovated by a private concern acting, at least officially, in a non-partisan manner) and the PLP occupied the Western Esplanade. Photographs have been circulating around cyberspace in an effort to compare the two gatherings and suggest that one was bigger than the other. There is a sort of frenzy on Facebook and other places Bahamians gather, where people engage in heated and emotionally charged exchanges of—what else?—propaganda, hurling the same invective our MPs have been hurling at one another across the floor of the house of assembly. But there is also a very large silence as well, and it is this silence that makes the outcome of the election so difficult to determine.
I’d like to consider that silence at some other time, because I find it very interesting. It’s a silence that sits in judgement, that does not buy into the insult-trading or hop the partisan bandwagon. It’s the kind of silence that affected the outcome of the Elizabeth by-election, where a seat was won because the majority of registered voters did not turn out to vote. I know that Larry Smith has argued that low voter turn-out is not uncommon for by-elections, and I agree to a point, but I also sense (as does he) that there is more at work here than that; it seems to me that there is a growing group of Bahamians who watch the antics of all the political parties with a mixture of disgust and despair, because all politicians alike are missing the point. Which is that no matter who wins on May 7th, 2012, we will all have to live in this country together on May 8th.
So my question is this. Given the passion and energy being expended in tearing down the other parties, or the other leaders—in dismissing reasonable questions and observations as “FNM” or “PLP” or even “DNA”—each of these being intended as insult, what happens the day after elections, when one party has won and the other(s) has/ve not? How do we work on building a nation of Bahamians? I have heard absolutely nothing from any party about what the future holds. The PLP has crafted some very general principles for the next few years, but these, when decoded, seem to amount to a reinstatement of what was in the works between 2002 and 2007 when they were in power. The FNM has focussed very much on vague generalities like “proven leadership” and “deliverance”, and what has been done, largely in material, infrastructural terms, in the very recent past (one or two years at most). The DNA speaks in broad terms, pushing the buttons that they feel gain them support, but not showing any real coherent ideology about which their philosophy has been crafted (well, OK, to say that the PLP and the FNM have any coherent ideology would be being too kind, but at least their track records suggest that one group makes noises that are vaguely populist while the other tends to appease the local business community).
Election seasons last for no more than six months at best. The remaining four and a half years require some measure of governance. And what frightens me the most in this election is how much it seems to be a game to those who are playing it. It’s entertainment, a sport, which involves the kind of trash-talking that one expects to hear at a football game (American or soccer, makes no difference) or before a boxing match, but which has very little place in the governing of the country. One could argue (and I certainly would) that for four of the past five years, there was no governance at all, but just more of this sparring in the house of assembly, just more trading of insults back and forth across the floor, while the world got on with changing its foundations all around us and the ground on which our society and economy rest crumbles away. I am not impressed by the roads and the harbour or the extension of the hospital, as every one of these, no matter the expenditure, represents to my mind a kind of patch on a society whose foundations are in danger of falling apart. Nor am I impressed with the way in which the opposition opposed these things, because, well, whining and insult do not an opposition make. And I’m also not impressed with the kinds of “solutions” proposed by either of the opposing parties, because no one is explaining how they are going to implement those solutions. I would venture to suggest that it is time that the era of development-by-foreign-investment come to a close in The Bahamas. But I see no evidence that the parties who have governed for the last twenty years in that climate have come up with any ideas about how to manage this country all by themselves.
So as we stare down the home stretch, as we slide into these last three weeks before Bahamians go to the polls and cast our votes, I would like at least one day to be dedicated to having the people who are contesting the elections to tell us what their vision is for this nation. Where do we go from here? How do we find our place in the twenty-first century? Why should I cast a vote for men who were educated before Bahamian Independence, and whose philosophies are, must be, out of place in this digital, global age? Why should I cast one for a man who has ridden the wave of dissatisfaction with our leaders to prominence as a real third-party contender, but who has not yet crafted a vision of his own as to how the country might be different?
Do I have hope for the Bahamian future, no matter who wins the next election? I can’t honestly say that I do. I have seen no vision from any of our prospective leaders, but see divisiveness and excess among their followers. So I’m preparing for five more years of struggle, no matter who wins or doesn’t win this election; for five more years of escalating violence in our society; for five more years of a contracting economy, traffic problems, and decreasing revenues. I’m preparing for five more years of governmental desperation, of prostitution of the country to the biggest donor (China seems to be the crowd favourite right now), of undereducation and of brain drain, no matter who wins. Because the governing of a country—and of a postcolonial, neocolonized country on the edge of America at the turn of the digital age—is a delicate, precious business; and, because governing in such a climate requires more than snap decisions made by a despot, the demurring of a wannabe democrat, or the pontification of a malcontent, I have seen no indication that any of our prospective leaders are capable of governing at all.
May 7th can’t come soon enough. But, people, think what May 8th will bring.