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Culture Clash: How the Political Parties Compare

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on May 3, 2017

With the general election one week away, the last debate organised by University of The Bahamas’ School of Social Sciences held last night and all plans of the three major parties published on their websites, it’s decision time.

We don’t hear much about the issues at rallies. They are celebratory in design and execution, bringing more music, one-liners and dancing than substantial plans for the next five years. Door-to-door visits are seldom made by the candidates themselves, leaving the questions of many constituents unanswered. Constituency offices are barely open until a few weeks before election, and rarely staffed by people with complete information, or even able to put constituents in immediate and direct contact with the candidate.

We have very little to go on as we approach the polls. I visited several constituency offices to request hard copies of their plans, but they all directed me to their websites. When I asked about options for people with limited internet access, I was met with no response.

While the plans are long, and not always organised or designed in the most intuitive ways, I found reading them side-by-side quite beneficial. I’ve chosen to focus on specific aspects of each of the three plans, and highlight some of their components to give a general idea of party promises.

PLP Charter 2017

The Progressive Liberal Party has identified, in Charter 2017, five key tools for development – environmental sustainability, good governance and civic responsibility, cultural development, youth empowerment, and technology. It’s action plan is divided into six areas of focus – expand opportunities, empower Bahamians, protect our citizens, care for our people, preserve what makes the Bahamas special, and strengthen citizen participation in governance. I find these titles quite odd, but the subheadings for each – not shown on the website but shown in the download – help to set expectations.

Charter 2017 can be viewed on six separate webpages or downloaded as an 84-page document. In each of its sections, Charter 2017 gives an overview of the PLP’s work since 2012. For example, Expand Opportunities boasts of over 40 per cent reduction in electricity costs (with no further explanation), the College of The Bahamas’ transition to University of The Bahamas, expected job creation through Baha Mar and expansion of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force fleet. It then lists plans for the next five years such as generation of new jobs through BAMSI, building a college-based city in North Andros, creating policies to ensure 75 to 80 per cent of tourism revenue remains in the Bahamas, implementing a revitalisation plan for downtown Nassau, and developing Exuma as an economic and transportation hub to bridge the northern and southern Bahamas.

The PLP’s Charter 2017 further promises the development of a Cultural and Creative Industries Sector yielding $200 per tourist ($1 billion of new revenue), alleviation of debt burden by capping interest, doubled investment in public school scholarships, creation of “Second Start” to help adults develop new skills, launch of a forensic laboratory, a biometric bail reporting process, development of Family Island health facilities to include new equipment and more doctors and nurses, and free electricity for those under (an unspecified) limit (expected to affect 15 to 20 per cent of low income households).

It also proposes the development of a Standing Forum for the Bahamian diaspora, inviting Bahamians to return annually, bringing their talent, skills and experience to work toward national development. Some components appear to be copied from the Vision 2040 National Development Plan (NDP) of the Bahamas such as Services Bahamas – one-window access to a range of government services. It, of course, also includes buzzwords like Freedom of Information Act and references to widely demanded systems like consultative processes with green papers and white papers and a paper-free public service.

Charter 2017 is relatively easy to read, laid out in bullet points with bold type for key phrases. The points do not include much details, but give a general idea of what the PLP intends to accomplish, why, and how.

FNM Manifesto

The Free National Movement (FNM) Manifesto is a much more basic plan with less detail, mostly stopping at the mention of an item. the manifesto is divided into 23 sections including immigration, healthcare, economy, good governance, education, judicial reform, tourism, and the environment. there does not seem to be a one-click option to download or even view the full plan. the website offers a history of the party and a biography of the party leader, but there is no framing of the manifesto.

In its social agenda, the FNM commits to the implementation of the Disability Equal Opportunity Act and lists a number of specific actions such as making parking in disabled parking spots an offence and establishing facilities so caregivers could have respite. It seeks to create a Ministry of Environment, inaugurate a National Clean-up Day, and phase out use of plastic bags by 2020. On crime, the FNM proposed a zero-tolerance approach, shares the PLP’s interest in a forensic lab and plans to “eliminate habitats where criminally flourish”.

Interestingly, the FNM has a section on public life which lists seven principles. They are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. Each item is explained, and would suggest FNM candidates make their public disclosures on time and are transparent about their decisions. In general, the plan is quite difficult to read, because it requires visits to 23 different pages, used colour backgrounds and has multiple nested lists. Unfortunately, with such simple line items, it does not feel like it is worth the work.

DNA Vision 2017 & Beyond

The Democratic National Alliance (DNA) has Vision 2017 & Beyond on its website, easy to view and download. The 62-page document begins with the vision and mission, message from the party leader and a list of 23 priorities for its first year should it win the election.

These include forming a Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, launching Commissions of Inquiry on Baha Mar and Bank of The Bahamas, raising minimum wage to $250, establishing a national lottery and legislating for the reinforcement of capital punishment.

Vision 2017 & Beyond is divided into eight areas of focus – good governance, national security, business and the economy, youth, education and culture, energy and the environment, healthcare and social policy, and Grand Bahama and the Family Islands.

The DNA has the strongest response to the demands of Bahamians who want political and electoral reform. It states its commitment to establishing the Office of the Ombudsman, an anti-corruption act, revision and strengthening of the Public Disclosure Act and making the Attorney General an independent position. Vision 2017 & Beyond also speaks to electoral reform, listing campaign finance reform, fixed election dates, term limits, recall of MPs and moving to a proportional representation system.

Through its plan, the DNA commits itself to reducing electricity costs by 50 per cent, move toward having 40 per cent renewable power by 2027, formation of a National Procurement Agency to oversee tender processes, developing a unified bus system, reducing public debt to 65 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2022, and reducing unemployment to eight per cent by 2021. It also makes mention of “one-stop portal” for the Business Licence Unit, which is akin to the one-window service in the NDP. The party also includes smaller projects that, no doubt, can be undertaken by its candidates whether they win or lose. These include the online “super library” and the fruit tree planting drive.

It’s interesting to consider the plan of the DNA and derive its value. The approach to crime is questionable, particularly when considering the impact of another maximum security prison, increased foot patrol and capital punishment. Punishment seems to get more focus than crime prevention, or addressing the issues that can lead to crime.

Comparing the three parties’ plans is not an easy task. They do not use the same style, and do not even focus on the same areas. Still, even a quick read gives a sense of values, priority areas, feasibility. The PLP Charter 2017 is the most detailed of the three, and likely benefitted from the NDP. The FNM Manifesto has simplicity, but lacks substance. The DNA has buzzwords and pet issues front and centre, but does not explain process. These plans will not give us all the answers, but in one week, we have to make a choice. It’s on us to be informed and prepared, and make our way to the polls on May 10 to make our marks.

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Culture Clash: Last Call for Voter Registration

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on April 5, 2017

According to reports from the Parliamentary Registration Department, 141,698 people had registered to vote as at March 20 for the 2017 general election .

Voter registration has been remarkably slow, and attention was first drawn to it in the last quarter of 2016.

On November 16, it was reported that only 57,000 people were registered to vote compared to 134,000 at the same point in 2011 before the last election.

Voter registration is expected to increase given the announcement that Parliament will be dissolved on April 10, ending voter registration for the 2017 general election. More than 30,000 people would need to register to vote before Tuesday to meet the 2012 voter registration count of 172,128.

For many years, we have boasted about high voter participation in general elections in the Bahamas. In the 2012 general election, 91.2 per cent of registered voters participated. In the general elections of 2007 and 2002, we saw 92.08 per cent and 90.18 per cent of registered voters cast ballots. While 90 per cent is quite high, it is important to note that these numbers are based on the number of people registered to vote; not the number of people eligible to vote.

It is unfortunate that our system puts the onus on the citizen to opt-in to the exercise, forcing Bahamians to gather documents, stand in long lines, complete forms, and sometimes return multiple times, all to ensure that they are able to vote in this country. The voter registration process is a barrier to participation. Perhaps it is a part of the reason for low voter registration, especially when so many people remain unconvinced by any political party or candidate.

When the numbers were revealed in November, showing that less than 50 per cent of those that registered by November in 2011 registered by 2016, we all knew it was a cause for concern. Everyone asked the same question. Why?

We see ourselves as enthusiastic participants in general elections. We show up en masse for rallies. We dress in party colours. We assume party affiliation based on the colours other people wear. We argue passionately about our political persuasions. Many of us are longtime swing voters, unattached to any party. No matter what, we are generally excited to vote. After five years or – worse – ten years of a particular administration, we are ready to make the switch. We have a long list of grievances with the current administration, and we know they need to be taught a lesson.

For that reason, we vote them out. We rarely vote a new administration in. More often than not, we vote an administration – a political party – out.

This time, people are a combination of angry, disappointed, dissatisfied and confused. Not to be mistaken for apathy, what Bahamians seem to be feeling now is a sense of hopelessness. We see no saviours. No political party even appears to have it all together, able to present a plan it is prepared to act on. From leadership feuds to overall track records, no political party has been able to gain the trust of the people. In 2017, most of us have no one to vote for. Even so, many Bahamian are committed to voting the current administration out, whatever it takes.

This is not exciting. This is not positive. This is not the kind of election season we know and love. It does not make us want to stand in long lines to register to vote. Still, it is what we need to do. We need to seriously consider the options, based on candidate, party leadership, plans of action, track records, and voting history in Parliament on issues of interest to us.

In February, Out Da Box launched what has been deemed the “spoil-the-ballot” campaign – part of a larger movement to build people power through increased civic engagement. I have worked with Dr Nicolette Bethel and Dr Ian Strachan for months to build this movement, now primarily focused on encouraging Bahamians to participate in the general election exercise. We do not want our fellow Bahamians to believe they must choose the lesser of the evils or sit it out.

Our commitment to building people power and creating a space for greater civic engagement is not temporary, nor is it limited to the upcoming election. We see this campaign as a step toward a stronger spirit of activism and the beginning of a sustained conversation about electoral reform.

The short term goal of Out Da Box is get eligible Bahamian citizens to register to vote, then go to the polls to cast ballots. We present the option to spoil the ballot as an alternative to staying home or voting against one’s conscience. This campaign is building democracy and expanding the options of the Bahamian people through a national conversation about something that has always existed and never been publicly discussed – the ability to choose none.

Every Bahamian deserves the right to choose, whether that choice is one or none. Unfortunately, anyone who does not register to vote gives up the right choose on election day. After Parliament has dissolved, the option to vote will no longer be available to those who have not registered. It is important to give yourself the option by registering to vote before Tuesday, April 11. The lines are likely to be long and the process probably won’t be the most pleasant experience of the day, but your right as a citizen of this country is worth the time and effort.

Remember this: even if you do not support a political party or candidate, you can show up on election day. You can spoil your ballot. Some people are thinking about opting out in protest, as a sign of dissatisfaction, but that cannot be quantified. Spoiled ballots will be counted, and we will all be able to see how many Bahamians did not endorse a party or candidate.

If you support a party or candidate in your constituency, let your ballot reflect that. If you are committed to voting against a particular party, let your ballot reflect that. If you refuse to choose from the options put before you, let your ballot reflect that. Be clear about your position. Let it be counted. Let there be no mistake, no assumption and no confusion. Let your voice be heard. Bahamian democracy needs you.

Voter registration stations remain open up to and including Monday at 9pm. For those already registered, voter’s cards are now available at several locations including Thomas A Robinson National Stadium, Remnant Tabernacle Church and St. George’s Anglican Church. Call the Parliamentary Registration Department at 397-2000 to find out where you need to go to collect yours before all cards are relocated to the Department on Farrington Road.

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Culture Clash: On People Power and Functions of Democracy

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on March 22, 2017

As the general election of 2017 – date still unknown – draws near, conversations about democracy are being ignited, but largely limited to one of its functions.

The low rate of voter registration has led the Bahamian people to frame the act of voting as the only form of participation in democracy available to citizens.

While it is a direct action and right afforded to us through democracy, voting is not the only benefit of democracy. Additionally, the creation and maintenance of the political system is not the only function of democracy.

Democracy is a concept, system, and practice that we, as citizens of The Bahamas, need to understand. Many believe it to be limited to elections and voting, but it reaches far beyond such events.

Democracy has four main functions, three of which are often ignored while it is reduced to the first. While it is important to understand the theory of democracy, it is at least as critical to recognise all of its functions and put it into practice more fully and intentionally.

  • Political system

A democratic political system allows people to choose their leaders in regular, free elections.

Free, fair elections require a neutral administrating body to ensure fair treatment of all parties and candidates, allowance for individuals to monitor voting and the counting of votes and independent tribunals to hear disputes.

Beyond that, it allows the people to hold representatives accountable for their actions and inaction while in office. Democracy recognises the sovereignty of the people as government authority is subject to the people’s consent. Political power is only temporary while the power of the people is lasting and flows to their representatives at their will.

For this reason, those elected are to consult with their constituents to ascertain their needs and opinions to enable accurate representation. Through the democratic system, voters have the right to observe the conduct of government business, criticise elected representatives, launch and support campaigns, vote secretly and be free of intimidation as they participate.

  • Active participation

Like its benefits, the democratic burden does not fall solely on governments and political leaders to maintain, strengthen, and exercise it.

The onus is on citizens to be informed of national issues, observe the behaviour of elected and appointed officials, voice their concerns and challenge decisions imposed upon and ideas put to them.

While voting is an important exercise and a right afforded to citizens by the democratic political system, citizens are called to participate in public discussions. The voice of the people must be heard, and serve as a guide for political representatives who are to act in the interest of their constituents.

Participation is not synonymous with spectatorship. To fully participate in public life, citizens must be informed – and this often requires personal effort. Politically-driven narratives seldom give a full picture, and the media is not always capable, for many reasons, of delivering balanced reports. It is necessary to look at multiple news sources, ask questions and engage in conversations with people of varied persuasions. Democracy enables the people to actively participate through:

  1. Questions. Accept nothing as fact without evidence. Investigate claims and try to find multiple sources.
  2. Discussion. Share your thoughts and ideas with other people. Engage with people who do not look like you, have the same background as you, or think the same way as you. The purpose is not to win, or be on the side of popular opinion. Enter conversations with gaining new perspective as your goal.
  3. Challenges. Do not settle for less than you deserve. Make demands of your representatives. Hold them accountable for their actions, demand transparency and insist upon regular reporting to and consultation with the people.
  4. Mobilisation. Be prepared to work together, as citizens, to find common ground, make a plan and take action. Your power is strengthened with activated along with that of your fellow Bahamians.

Participation includes joining political campaigns, protesting, petitioning, organising within communities and running for political office. Involvement in civil society organisations is another way to be an active citizen, and can allow for informal education and mobilisation around specific interests and causes.

  • Human rights protection

Human rights are inherent to all people, regardless of gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, language or any other identity marker.

They are interdependent, indivisible and interrelated. Human rights are promoted and protected by international law, and the standard has been set by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the UDHR protects against discrimination, slavery, torture, and unfair detainment, and affirms the right to life, freedom of movement, equality before the law, right to trial, right to privacy and right to nationality.

International law grants every citizen human rights that cannot be denied. Citizens are free to speak, practice their religions, associate with people and organisations, assemble, travel and engage in a number of other acts. In a democracy, citizens have these basic rights that cannot be denied.

  • Rule of Law

Democracy is subject to a set of laws. These laws exist for the protection of citizens’ rights, to maintain order in the country and to limit the power of the people’s representatives.

This function exists to ensure that rule is not subject to the whims of an individual or group of individuals. Because of the rule of law, all citizens are equal, none being above the law, regardless of position. It allows for fair and impartial decision-making by independent courts, separate from the government, which is meant to limit the power of representatives.

The people of The Bahamas can only benefit when democracy functions properly, being exercised by the citizens to whom it extends specific rights.

One right afforded to us through democracy is the casting of a ballot in the next general election. To exercise that right, we must take proof of Bahamian citizenship to register to vote. This is an important exercise that enables us to choose our constituency representatives and, by extension, the leadership of the country. It is not, however, the only way to participate in our democracy, and to suggest such is both dishonest and disempowering to the Bahamian people.

Let us encourage one another to exercise the right to vote, but include the other functions of democracy and methods of participation in our conversations for balance, comprehensiveness and strengthening of people power.

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#TooSexyToVote: Female Voter Suppression in The Bahamas

Published at LadyClever.com on January 27, 2017

On the heels of the U.S. Presidential Election, The Bahamas is preparing for its general election expected to be held n May 2017. The Bahamas has successfully maintained a voter turnout of over 90% for general elections— one of the highest in the world. A November 2016 report, however, showed that approximately 57,000 people had registered to vote compared to 134,000 at the same point in 2011, ahead of the 2012 general election. Since then, there has been a significant increase in politicians and civic society, through social media posts, radio talk shows, and daily newspapers, urging Bahamians to register to vote. Given this, it was shocking to learn that Bahamian women were being turned away by Parliamentary Registration Department staff, denied the right to register to vote, by reason of dress.

No Cleavage Allowed

On December 30, 2016, The Tribune’s cover story featured a woman who had been turned away from voter registration three times. Deputy Chief Reporter Krishna Virgil asked Parliamentary Commission Sherlyn Hall about voter registration policy, as the Parliamentary Elections Act does not mention a dress code.

Mr. Hall said, “Because you have to take photographs, so if someone comes with half their breasts out and cleavage showing, this isn’t permitted.”

In the same interview, he shared that 75,000 people had registered to vote — less than 50% of registration numbers at the same point in 2011.

While this story was a surprise to some, others had stories of their own to share. Women took to social media to talk about what they were wearing when they were turned away from registering to vote. They ranged from tank tops to sleeveless dresses. Generally, it seemed any woman with their shoulders, upper arms, or breasts visible was denied their right to register.

#TooSexyToVote

Ava Turnquest, Chief Reporter at The Tribune, sprung into action on the day the story was printed. Within hours of her Facebook post and the creation of a secret group, dozens of Bahamian women were in conversation about the suppression of women’s voter rights.While some researched laws and policies regarding dress code, others brainstormed national actions. #TooSexyToVote to vote was born, and the Sexy Voter Registration event was set for January 4, 2017.

Bahamian women were invited to a lunchtime power hour at the Parliamentary Registration Department to register to vote in the attire of their choice. The decision was made not to leave until everyone successfully registered to vote, no matter what they were wearing. The participants included a woman in a crochet top and short, a women in jeggings and a crop top, a women in a fitted dress exposing her cleavage, and a woman in a men’s three-piece suit. All participants were able to register without a problem, though the woman in the crop top was asked to remove some of her earrings. She refused, the photographer consulted a supervisor, and it was decided that her picture could be taken and her registration process completed.

The Fight Continues

The next day, more reports were made on social media of Bahamian women being turned away from voter registration station. It became clear that most of the issues were occurring at two locations. The #TooSexyToVote crew then began plans to respond. While two female Parliament members and the Minister of National Security — who has responsibility for the Parliamentary Registration Department — referenced the issue and Hall’s comments, there were no reports of directives being issued for the Department’s staff to cease its discriminatory practices and register all eligible Bahamians to vote. Hollaback! Bahamas then published an open letter to the Parliamentary Commission, calling on him to do his job in accordance with the Parliamentary Elections Act, or vacate the post.

“It is an affront to Bahamian suffragettes and all Bahamian women that in 2017 — the year we will celebrate 55 years since the first time Bahamian women voted — eligible voters are being turned away because of personal opinions. Hollaback! Bahamas denounces the refusal to view Bahamian women as full citizens, the policing of women’s bodies, and the subsequent perpetuation of violence against women.”

A directive has since been issued, and Hollaback! Bahamas continues to collect #TooSexyToVote stories through its online report form. All data collected through the form will be reported to the media, holding all parties involved accountable.

Next Steps

#TooSexyToVote organizers are closely monitoring social media reports on experiences in registering to vote. It has expanded its scope to include other barriers to registration, like stations not being open during published times. The group is set to launch an interactive flowchart providing Bahamian citizens with comprehensive information on voter registration requirements and procedures to ensure they are prepared when they visit a station. There are also plans to train voter advocates to visit registration stations and assist people who encounter issues with the staff. #TooSexyToVote is committed to encouraging people to register to vote, especially women, who comprise more than 50% of voters.