For the FNM, a familiar place
By Candia Dames
Guardian News Editor
In some respects, the Free National Movement (FNM) is back in a very familiar place.
After its election defeat in 2002, it was in near shambles.
Hubert Ingraham, who led the party to victory in 1992 and 1997, had gone into retirement, and the party’s new leader, Tommy Turnquest, not only found himself in opposition, but was also without a seat in the House of Assembly.
In that election, many former Cabinet ministers were sent into political retirement.
Turnquest’s dream of becoming prime minister in 2002 was shattered, along with the party’s efforts for a third consecutive victory at the polls.
Turnquest learnt quickly that the post-Ingraham era was a difficult place to be.
A diligent and focused worker, he kept the party together, attempted to chip away at the credibility and popularity of the new Christie administration, and tried to re-oil the FNM machinery to do battle again in 2007.
But by 2004, many in the party had accepted that Turnquest did not have what it would take to lead the FNM once again to victory. He was a difficult sell in 2002 and they felt it was likely he would be a difficult sell in the future.
Turnquest himself accepted that he needed help in determining what the FNM would have to do to return to the glory days and the seat of power.
The then FNM leader appointed an advisory council of the party, headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Frank Watson, to consider the steps the FNM needed to take to be considered a formidable force at the next election.
That council advised Turnquest that there are many FNMs who wanted him out and Ingraham back as leader.
Seemingly in denial at the course the FNM was on, Turnquest declared not long after that, “We in the FNM will not allow our political opponents to capitalize on make-believe issues in our party.”
Those “make believe” issues eventually led to another leadership change in the FNM in 2005. Hubert Ingraham was back and FNMs had renewed hope.
With the Christie administration already suffering from multiple blunders and scandals, Ingraham’s forceful leadership was the icing for a newly energized and freshly minted FNM, which set its sights on a return to government.
Today, the FNM is suffering from the same kind of lethargy and lack of focus it suffered under Tommy Turnquest.
Added to this is the fact that the party has lost the last three elections: The 2010 Elizabeth by-election, the 2012 general election and the 2012 North Abaco by-election.
Each was a humiliating defeat for the party. Elizabeth was the first dogfight that signaled major trouble for the FNM.
Though the PLP’s candidate Ryan Pinder only managed to edge out the FNM’s Dr. Duane Sands after going to Election Court, it was a major victory for the then opposition that remained ferocious and unrelenting in its assaults on the government throughout the FNM’s last term in office.
Unlike the PLP, the FNM does not now have the same kind of strength as an opposition force. Half of its team in the House is new to politics and its leader is still feeling his way.
Still reeling from the 2012 election blow delivered by Christie and his gold rush team, the FNM was unable to hold on to Ingraham’s former seat when a by-election was held last October.
The party’s candidate — Greg Gomez — became a laughing stock in some circles and caused major embarrassment for the FNM.
But some pundits opined that even with a stronger candidate, the opposition party would not have been able to convince enough North Abaco voters that there was anything substantial the FNM could do for them, no matter how much Ingraham urged them to stay red.
It was a throwback to 1997, when Sir Lynden Pindling’s former South Andros seat went with the governing party in the September 5 by-election.
It was after the North Abaco by-election defeat when Minnis declared, “The Ingraham era is over”.
It was a watershed moment for the FNM as Minnis dug his heels in and renewed his commitment to a new course for the party.
He has been off to a wobbly, lackluster start, but appears determined to stay the course even in the face of piercing criticisms from within and outside his party.
What Minnis has going for him at this point is there is no clear competitor for the leadership of the party.
And although some have become nostalgic and long for Ingraham’s return, there is no evidence that it is likely to happen or that it is even in the party’s best interest.
But it is early still.
Although Minnis won his seat in the House in 2012, the parallels between his leadership and Turnquest’s are striking.
Minnis was a standout MP between 2007 and 2012 in terms of his work and presence in his constituency. But he was also lucky to be in an area traditionally considered a “safe seat”, the boundary cuts notwithstanding.
With the party still demoralized from the 2012 loss to Perry Christie and the PLP, he is attempting to blaze his own path as leader while battling the forces within the FNM still loyal to Ingraham.
The political sport has thus far proven a struggle for him.
Minnis is having a difficult time commanding the respect of many within his party. Though a seemingly hardworking and organized leader, he is not a career politician, he suffers from grave political insecurity and he lacks a natural charismatic flair and style important for successful political leadership.
Many within and outside the FNM just don’t think Minnis has what it takes to be a strong leader.
One political observer recently quipped: “You can’t go to a dilly tree looking for juju.”
Another pointed out however that political victories are more often shaped by the mistakes of the governing party and its leader, than by the strengths of oppositions.
Minnis has sought to stamp himself as a strong and effective leader although his multiple positions on the gambling issue worked against this effort.
His big moment was his very public spat with House Speaker Dr. Kendal Major last month, which led to Minnis being suspended for two house sittings.
Minnis also played the role of whistleblower in the Cuban ‘abuse’ fiasco. Although he initially took a public whipping on the issue, he sought to maximize his political score after a report was leaked in which Defence Force marines admitted severely beating detainees at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre.
The leader’s new focus is finding someone to lead his party’s Senate team after the resignation of Desmond Bannister from the Upper Chamber.
Although Bannister and Minnis have both said the move was no surprise, some party insiders indicated that it was further evidence that confidence in Minnis’ leadership was eroding.
Bannister resigned with gracious tones, and even characterized Minnis’ leadership thus far as “outstanding” — a declaration some observers saw as laughable.
Bannister is the second senior FNM to resign from the Senate in under a year. Former Minister of State for Finance Zhivargo Laing did so last year, citing personal reasons.
Days after having Bannister’s resignation letter in hand, Minnis had still not made it public. The announcement was made in The Nassau Guardian as a result of a leak last Tuesday.
The letter was dated September 1, although it is understood that Minnis got it several days later as he was out of town.
Minnis said he had planned to make the announcement today and he said a new senator will be named by the beginning of October.
Given that Bannister’s resignation was no surprise to the FNM leader, one assumes he had a new senator in mind a while ago. The choice will undoubtedly be another former minister as the other members of the FNM’s Senate team are junior members of the party in terms of political experience.
After his resignation was made public, Bannister urged FNMs against infighting, saying they have an opportunity to win the next election with Minnis as leader if they pull together.
“If the Free National Movement is to be the next government, people in the FNM have to understand that we can only have one leader at a time. We can only have one deputy leader at a time, and if you aspire to be leader, support them, make the organization stronger and then challenge them when the opportunity comes,” Bannister told The Nassau Guardian last Wednesday.
“But don’t continue to undermine them as some members have done and that is very, very important for an organization.
“Some of this undermining that I have seen and some of these attacks have been unwarranted. We need to support leadership. We need to be team players and as the church continues to tell you, you cannot be a leader unless you have been a follower at some stage.”
Minnis no doubt recognizes that for him the knives are out. And so he has had to try to balance his fight for his political life against his need to be an inclusive leader who listens to the views of all within his party, even those against him — and there are many.
Fortunately for the FNM, it has time to work on its leadership challenges.
Frank Watson, the former deputy prime minister, was instrumental in Ingraham’s 2005 return to party leadership.
Watson told National Review that Minnis should be given more time to prove his leadership abilities.
He recognized that the party’s leadership has a lot of work to do.
“The leadership is not projecting itself in a way that is attracting the attention of the general public and it is therefore not generating the kind of support that we are going to need if we are going to become a challenge to the PLP at the next opportunity,” Watson said.
“I think that those in leadership position first have to bring some cohesion to the leadership, that they’re all on the same page, singing the same song at the same time and that there’s a clear direction that the party is going in with respect to the issues that they are going to promote and a policy position of the party that they are developing to attract the attention of the voters.
“I have determined that Minnis should be given a clear shot and that clear shot should be between now and next year maybe this time to prove that he is capable of doing so.
“He’s not a natural politician, but I have seen any number of instances where if you have the drive, which he has, if you have the desire, which he has, and you reach out to those who can see more clearly the political landscape, you can do the job. The job can get done.”
But Watson thinks it would be a bad idea for FNMs to reach out to Ingraham for yet another return.
“Mr. Ingraham is my dearest friend, and I think he is one of the great leaders of our time, but everybody’s time comes to an end and the party has to find new blood. You can’t be regurgitating all the time,” Watson said.
“You’ve got to find new people to carry on in this new environment. I don’t encourage him at all. No; not at all. I think he’s done the best with what he had.”
He added, “If Minnis recognizes his political shortcomings and reaches out to find the means by which he could overcome those shortcomings, I think he could possibly lead us into the next election.”
September 16, 2013