Monday, June 14, 2010

So, we could have another round of Ingraham versus Christie in the 2012 General Election

Politics in perilous times
By BRENT DEAN ~ Guardian Senior Reporter ~

Sitting in the House of Assembly during the budget communication, I drifted off in thought as the prime minister informed the country about how bad things are.

Likely thinking about bills or some other mundane annoyance, I was staring with a not too pleased look on my face out of one of the western windows when a Free National Movement MP tapped me.

The MP said: "Why do you look sad? It is us who should be sad."

And many members of the governing side did look less jubilant than the norm during budget debates.

Finance ministers usually get rounds and rounds of applause from colleagues as they announce the various 'gifts' to be provided in the upcoming fiscal year.

This time was different, however.

The only notable applause Ingraham received, if I recall correctly, was when he ended the communication. And that was muted.

The times we live in:

The beginning of the second decade of the 21st century has been tough.

The collapse of the housing market and consequent global financial crisis has changed the Bahamian political landscape.

Ingraham directed his 2007 campaign personally at his friend and former law partner Perry Christie. Christie was savaged and called weak and indecisive.

In one of the last sittings of the Parliament before the 2007 general election, Ingraham shouted across the floor of the House, while on his feet, that Christie was "impotent" as a leader.

The attacks worked. Christie was sent in shame to opposition.

In opposition his fate was not good for quite a while. He lost MP Kenyatta Gibson to the FNM.

Former PLP Senator Pleasant Bridgewater was arrested and charged in an attempted extortion case. MP Obie Wilchcombe and PLP Senate leader Allyson Maynard-Gibson starred as witnesses in an embarrassing soap opera.

Christie was also unsuccessfully challenged for the party's leadership by Dr. Bernard Nottage.

And let's not forget the Malcolm Adderley affair.

Christie's time in opposition was mirroring his time as prime minister, with political misfortune standing behind every door.

Tough times for the FNM too:

As the PLP tripped and stumbled through opposition, two problems kept mounting for the Ingraham government: A high level of violent crime and a poor economy.

The Bahamas is on pace to set its third homicide record in four years.

The 2009 Her Majesty's Prison report recently revealed that in 2008 and 2009, a period when there were more than 150 homicides, only one person was convicted and sentenced to prison for murder.

This is stunning failure.

The collapse in the prosecutorial arm of the state was evident across the board as similarly abysmal results were reported in all categories of violent crime.

People are being robbed, raped and killed and no one is being punished.

On the economic front, despite the best efforts by the FNM, the country would have been in recession for three years by the end of 2010.

With the unemployment rate likely around 15 percent, and few prospects of that number dropping significantly within the next 23 months, a Progressive Liberal Party once lost in misstep after misstep appears again to have a chance to be government.

This more so because the economy is bad and crime still appears to be getting worse rather than anything the PLP did or is doing.

Things may not get better:

So if an election were called today, who would you vote for?

This question is almost impossible to answer at this time because there is a missing part of the equation.

Will Hubert Ingraham run again as leader of the FNM?

Ingraham has pledged to answer that question before the year is out.

His political legacy is great.

Ingraham stands without question as the most significant politician in the post-Lynden Pindling era having, thus far, won three governments.

What stands in front of him now, however, is a bleak set of circumstances that are not going to get better before the next general election is called.

The extraordinary spending states took up in the wake of the global economic crisis has given way to sovereign debt crises across the globe.

Countries with high debt levels – developed and developing – are now reckoning with years of profligate spending.

The post-World War II welfare states are unraveling.

British Prime Minister David Cameron warned his people about a decade of austerity; people have died in Greece in clashes over spending cuts; Spain has slashed public service pay by five percent, among other measures.

The list of states choking on tough austere medicine goes on and on.

The United States too, with its two wars and large entitlements, will have to move more aggressively to reign in spending.

Further tax increases to plug its budget deficit of more than a trillion dollars are likely.

The great danger for The Bahamas is that as developed states fall prey to a double dip recession, our prolonged recession will continue without relief.

Two more crises loom.

The oil will gush in the Gulf of Mexico until at least August when a relief well is completed. This is a best-case scenario.

If the first well does not work, others will have to be attempted. Oil could flow for the rest of the year into 2011.

The Bahamas would be impacted.

Few tourists would come to a tropical paradise with oily beaches. Stopover arrivals dropped by 10 percent in 2009. A further decline would lead to a halt of tourism related investments, and layoffs.

Needless to say, a major hurricane in a populated part of the country would be calamitous.

The politics of it all:

The PLP has the luxury of sitting back and watching the Ingraham government struggle with one crisis after the other.

All it has to do is attack, saying that things are bad and they (the FNM) are the government.

This simple cynical strategy is effective.

In 2008, George Bush and his party were swept out of power in the U.S.; Gordon Brown and labor recently lost in the U.K.; and Patrick Manning in Trinidad and Tobago was too ousted from power a few weeks ago.

Anti-incumbency is in the air.

The problem the FNM faces is that it is hard to say "we did a lot for you" when things remain so bad.

Yes the FNM created the unemployment benefit; yes they boosted social service assistance; and yes they kept the economy afloat.

But, thousands of people remain out of work. Thousands are also the victims of crime.

Rational and employed people like me see that the governing party has tried.

Those who have been unemployed for two years, and who have been robbed several times in-between, do not care as much about these efforts.

They are hurting.

The weakness for the PLP is it has offered no new ideas thus far.

The PLP has run away from two of the recent national debates – one has concluded and the other is just beginning.

The party has refused to take a position on the legalization of gambling for Bahamians and it has not taken a position on the Chinese labor issue at Baha Mar.

Running away from the issues does not inspire confidence.

Christie is the master of letting opponents – both internal and external – hang themselves when the heat comes, while he steps to the side avoiding the arrows.

At a time when people are hurting, the PLP needs to look like the alternative government.

Not stepping up on the tough issues makes the PLP look like the small protest parties rather than the polished machine ready to govern.

The opposition may be finally heading in the right direction on this issue.

Christie told reporters at a news conference on Friday that his party would have a draft of its policy positions prepared by July.

How will it all end?

At this stage it would be hard to see Ingraham walking away sometime in December. A late departure from the FNM would lead to civil war in the governing party.

The young Turks like Branville McCartney who think they are ready to lead would be up against the fifty-somethings in the generation of Tommy Turnquest who think they are experienced enough to lead. (Who knows if Turnquest even has those dreams anymore).

So, we could have another round of Ingraham versus Christie.

The two leaders and parties have different things to work on in order to win.

Ingraham needs a success.

Crisis management is admirable, but some major investment creating lots of jobs must happen for him to distance self and party from the PLP.

The crime numbers too need to stabilize. In the first quarter of 2010, housebreaking was up 29 percent. This type of crime is most damaging politically because it affects so many people so personally.

Christie needs solutions. People won't buy into the help and hope he was selling in 2002.

He also needs to offload the PLPs who got into scandal since they won government the last time.

These cancerous presences will turn off middle-class voters – a group the PLP struggles with.

With no polling data in front of me, I can only speculate as to the mood of the country. The Elizabeth by-election gives some guidance.

When both parties went all out to win a swing seat in February it was a virtual draw.

Either can win the next general election. Strategy and discipline are key, however.

The losing leader will bear an eternal scar. He would be the one that was sent into retirement as a loser.

This represents a hellish punishment for great politicians.

Both Christie and Ingraham are proud men who care about their legacies; and both have much work to do in order to win.

June 14, 2010