Predicting the 2012 General Election: Third parties & other things

Been following some of the predictions re the upcoming elections. (There are others too: here, here and here.) Not closely, you understand, because I just don't have that much time in my life (and I've been doing other, really exciting and constructive things), but occasionally, with some interest, because this is the most fascinating election period that has occurred in a long, long time, and because every prediction out there has to contend with a new, unfamiliar curve ball: the rise of the third party movement.Note I didn't say the DNA. That's because the Democratic National Alliance is just capitalising on something that has changed in the country, something that I believe is going to continue to grow, even if the two-party acolytes succeed in killing the DNA off. It's the fact that the split between two major parties in The Bahamas has developed almost by default. Its roots are in that most ancient and powerful division in our nation: the centuries-long categorisation of Bahamians of colour as "natives" (white Bahamians were "residents") whose purpose was to serve their betters—not to lead. The FNM-PLP split, for better or for worse, is buried in this dichotomy, and for decades one could fairly safely assume that PLP supporters tended towards the privileging of black Bahamians, while FNM supporters advocated the One Bahamas movement (by which I mean the recognition that Bahamian and black are not necessarily synonymous). As a result, anyone who has voted in two or more elections should recall that no election season till this one has been allowed to pass without the invocation of race—whether from rally platforms, in letters to the editor, or by reference to the American TV miniseries Roots.The third party movement has queered that pitch. The 2012 election is historic in any number of ways, but one of the most significant is that I have not noticed any real reference to race in the campaigns. In fact, it would appear from the images being projected by the Afrocentric PLP, in posters, the Mandate, videos and ads, that white Bahamians are embraced and included, and that it is no longer possible to assign PLP-ness to black Bahamians and FNM-ness to white. The simple fact is that race is no longer a major issue for most Bahamians. I am not saying that it is no longer relevant in our society; what I am suggesting that it is no longer a primary determinant of one's ability to succeed in The Bahamas. And because of that, the principles on which both the FNM and the PLP were founded are growing obsolete, and both parties have for some time been losing their "base".This is a trend that started to show in 2002, when no less than 4 independents sat in the House of Assembly. Some people might disagree with me, arguing that the resounding defeat of the CDR at the polls in that year, and the continuing trouncing of the BDM to boot, challenge  my position. They may well be right, but I would argue that by 2002, the transformation of the Bahamian society that was begun under the PLP and continued by the FNM had resulted in a society where the largely uncontested foundations of the FNM and the PLP were being eroded, a place where one did not necessarily need a political party to give one legitimacy, a place where ideas rather than tribe began to matter. Never mind that the independents that sat in the HOA between 2002 and 2007 were there because, for the most part, they ran unopposed by one of the other of the parties (Wells, Cartwright, & Dupuch were unopposed by the PLP; I can't remember whether Bastian won hands down despite going up against FNM and PLP or not); I suggest that the facts that they sat in the House of Assembly as men beholden to no one but their constituents, and that they were watched representing those constituents, and appeared to vote with their consciences for the most part, were not incidental to the growth of the faith in the third-party movement that we are witnessing in 2012.(I also have very little doubt that, had the CDR weathered their defeat in 2002, regrouped, continued to develop their platform, and continued to work on their base, they would be a very real contender in this election, and would have attracted far more of the mature disaffected voters than the DNA has been able to do after one short year; we might be looking at quite a different situation today. But you know what they say about hindsight, and I digress.)But there's something else that's important here, and something else that the pundits appear to have overlooked. The greatest obstacle to the ability of a third party to gain traction among Bahamian voters was its ability to get its message out. Until the by-election in Elizabeth in 2010, third parties needed considerable sums of money simply to make their voices heard. The advent of Facebook and Twitter, however, has changed the ground completely. As has been observed elsewhere, much of what has enabled the green wave to continue to gather has been the presence of third-party candidates on the internet, their activity, their accessibility, and their willingness to engage in dialogue with potential voters. This is quite different from the traditional Voice-of-God politics that the older parties continue to practise. And while the DNA has capitalized on this change in the past 12 months or so, the real success story of this shift was the short-lived NDP.Think about it. The NDP did not only use Facebook as a means to spread its message; the message it spread was also a reflection of the ethos that prevails on social media. The principal tenets of the new party included a real focus on the constituents of Elizabeth, and—remarkably—a new approach to the selection of candidates. Instead of the traditional system of delegates nominating and ratifying candidates behind closed doors without the knowledge or input of the citizens those candidates were supposed to serve, the NDP advocated a more open process, in which hopefuls would present themselves to the voters, and the voters would indicate who they wanted to represent them. Furthermore, the NDP campaign on Facebook was remarkable and ground-changing, as it addressed issues in ways that enabled citizens to review them, think about them, and become involved in them. (Read a full account of the rise and fall of the NDP here.) I would argue that much of that energy was shifted to support for the DNA. What has happened is that, although the principals of the third-party movement have melted away, amalgamated with more established parties, or otherwise disappeared, the general interest of the voters, the hunger of Bahamian citizens for something different, has not abated. Rather, it has built, and the existence of the DNA has allowed it to be fed.Because of that, I think this election is too close to call. I believe anything could happen when the results start coming in an hour from now. Anything. A landslide victory for the FNM, say with the 4 x 7 sum of 28 seats? Sure. A landslide victory for the PLP, with the same numbers? Definitely. A split house, with (say) a tie between the FNM and the PLP, with the DNA holding the balance? Possible. A minority or coalition government, with the DNA calling the shots? Even that.The point is, we just don't know. There's a lot of conventional wisdom floating around, and it's on this conventional wisdom that the political parties have all based their strategies. It's on this conventional wisdom that the big guns—from the Prime Minister and the Boundaries Commission to the invocation of the traditional Saint-FNM/Demon-PLP narratives to the outrageous claims of The Punch and Bahamas Press—have drawn to build another issueless, diss-the-citizen campaign. If I can sum it up, it goes something like this: The base needs to be fed, because you have to be sure they vote. So feed them with trash-talk, sound-bytes, snippets of carefully pruned information, and exciting political gatherings where people gather together wearing the right-coloured shirt so that some photographer can take their picture and post it on Facebook to make the other side scared. As one earnest  political candidate actually told me: the people don't want meat; what they like is gravy. Keep them entertained and fed and well-supplied with liquor, trash-talk, insult-trading and dancing you'll get their vote.It's on this conventional wisdom, too, that many of the pundits are basing their predictions. Now maybe they're right, and the election will be as predictable as they hope; maybe the careful redrawing of the boundary lines, the glad-handing of shirts and caps and wads of cash, and the Junkanoo-competition rallies will do the trick. But I have my doubts.Why ? Because the last election was the closest in modern Bahamian history, with an initial outcome of only five seats separating the government and the opposition in the House of Assembly, meaning the balance of power was three seats alone (which three, incidentally, might have been held by the former CDR if the members had so chosen). That election was won by a margin of 2%—a margin that is fundamentally affected by the so-called "swing voters", those of us who think about how and why we cast our X, who are not predictable, who consult our consciences, who watch the price of the fish. Yes, we do exist. And the third party has attracted many of us.So don't sleep on the DNA, even if they do not win one seat. The outcome of this election will depend on them. And I have no intention whatsoever of attempting to guess what that outcome will be.We'll just have to wait and see.