Wednesday, May 25, 2011

There are no campaign finance laws in The Bahamas, so Bahamian political parties do not have to disclose who finances their operations

Cables reveal discussions of money in elections

NG Deputy News Editor

A senior member of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) disclosed that his party spent around $7 million on the 2002 general election campaign, and a senior member of the Free National Movement (FNM) revealed that his party would need to spend between $150,000 and $250,000 on a potential by-election in the then Holy Cross constituency, according to diplomatic cables obtained by The Nassau Guardian through WikiLeaks.

There are no campaign finance laws in The Bahamas and the two main political parties do not disclose who finances their operations.

According to a 2003 confidential cable by the United States Embassy in Nassau, former PLP MP and businessman Frankie Wilson told embassy officials that the PLP spent approximately $7 million on the 2002 campaign. In a note in the cable, the embassy said the FNM claims to have spent about $4 million on that campaign.

The embassy did not cite its source for the FNM figure. However, the embassy did note that, “neither (party) is required to provide any accounting for campaign contributions or expenditures, so both figures are suspect.”

The U.S. said that though Wilson disclosed the figure during the meeting in May 2003, “he did not elaborate on where all this money came from.”

Because money donated in The Bahamas to political parties is donated with the understanding that the donors’ identities will not be publicly disclosed, political parties are under an ‘unofficial obligation’ to keep the sources of party financing secret.

The PLP has historically lingered behind the FNM when it comes to party financing. The party has admitted this publicly.

The FNM was formed from an amalgamation of disaffected PLPs in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the remnants of the old United Bahamian Party, including many of the old white merchant elite. The consistency of support from the old white merchant class has provided the FNM a base of financial stability the PLP has not really had.

Coming out of the 2002 general election when the PLP won 29 seats and the FNM won 7 seats – four independents were elected – the PLP was confident that it would win the next general election.

“Wilson confidently predicted the PLP would win the election again in 2007, and dismissed the FNM as disorganized and poorly led,” he said of the FNM under the leadership of then Senator Tommy Turnquest according to the cable.

“He also said that for the first time in 2002, the PLP was competitive in terms of campaign financing.”

The potential Holy Cross by-election

In a confidential May 2004 cable, Turnquest talked party financing during a meeting with U.S. officials.

This meeting took place in the wake of the bankruptcy order issued by then Supreme Court Justice Jeanne Thompson in March 2004 against the then PLP MP for Holy Cross, Sidney Stubbs.

Bankrupt individuals are not eligible to sit in Parliament. If the court order had stood, Stubbs would have had to vacate the seat and a by-election would have been called.

“Turnquest estimated that the FNM would spend between $150,000 – $250,000 on the election, should it take place,” according to the cable.

The Americans said they asked Turnquest how he could possibly spend that much money on so few voters and, according to the cable, he replied that Bahamians like free paraphernalia.

If the $150,000 to $250,000 figure is multiplied out through 40 constituencies – the number of constituencies in the 2002 general election – the FNM would spend between $6 million and $10 million on a campaign.

Turnquest offered further insight into the thinking of the FNM around the potential by-election. The cable depicts a FNM leader who was not confident that his party could win the seat against the sitting government.

“Turnquest indicated that he has no plans to run for this seat, but fully supports ‘his close friend’, Carl Bethel, to represent the FNM. Turnquest estimated the FNM's chances of winning the seat at 50/50,” according to the embassy in the cable.

“Claiming that the sitting government had tremendous resources – public works projects and jobs – to bring to bear in the campaign, Turnquest sniped that were the PLP government not so weak its odds of retaining the seat would be 70 to 30.”

The cable also revealed that Turnquest thought that such a by-election would have been a war.

“The election, predicted Turnquest, would be costly for both parties as each would pour resources into it, his FNM to embarrass the government, the PLP to avoid an embarrassing defeat,” the embassy said in the cable.

“Each of the voters in the constituency would be personally contacted and both parties would hold almost nightly (and expensive) rallies. As many as 40 to 80 campaign workers would be brought in by each party for the campaign.”

A politically savvy Turnquest, however, realized that it should not be assumed that a by-election would happen.

“Turnquest expressed some doubt that the election would even be called, pointing out that Stubbs could avoid resignation if his attorneys succeed in overturning the court's bankruptcy finding,” according to the cable.

Turnquest assumed correctly. In May 2005, Her Majesty’s Privy Council ruled that the Court of Appeal erred when it determined that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal of Stubbs against his bankruptcy order issued by the Supreme Court.

The order of bankruptcy was set aside allowing Stubbs to take his seat in Parliament.

Turnquest also discussed with the Americans the potential of a by-election in the PLP stronghold of St. Cecilia, which was and still is held by Cynthia Pratt, according to the cable.

Pratt stepped down as PLP deputy leader in 2009, but there was speculation long before she made the move that she would leave front-line politics. In 2004, Turnquest understood that St. Cecilia was a lost cause for the FNM.

“Turnquest hinted that the odds of FNM victory in the PLP stronghold of St. Cecilia were so slim that his party might not even contest the election,” said the embassy if such a by-election were to take place.

The Americans attempted to decipher what the issues of relevance would be in a potential Holy Cross by-election.

“Asked about the issues likely to dominate the campaign, Turnquest acknowledged that the FNM had hired a marketing company to conduct polls during the general election – although the results were closely held within the party leadership – and that he had lately been commissioning focus groups to probe public opinion,” according to the cable.

“Turnquest said that he had personally attended quite a few of these focus groups.”

Looking at the Bahamian election process in 2004, the Americans remarked in the cable, “As expensive as Bahamian elections have become, they remain relatively unsophisticated.”

They said that Turnquest's belief that he can sit in on focus groups probing his character and image without biasing the results reflects the relative naivety with which Bahamian politicians in general approach survey research.