October 10, 2010 § Leave a comment
Who lives there?: Slightly more than 300,000 people on a series of 29 reasonably sized islands, 661 cays (or very thin low sandbanks – some of which are habitable) and over 2000 tiny islets, which spread in an arc though the Atlantic north of Cuba and east of Florida. Almost all live on the island of New Providence (a small island roughly where the USA flagpole sticks into the map) and, of these, nearly two thirds live in the capital Nassau.
Nearly 85% are the descendents of African slaves. The rest are mostly the descendents of two major groups: puritans fleeing persecution in Britain who arrived in 1649, and American loyalists (British sympathisers) who arrived following their defeat in the American war of Independence in 1783. There is a Greek community in the islands, which whilst numerically quite small, has retained a great degree of cultural independence.
How does the system work? (the theory): The Bahamas are a constitutional monarchy. The monarch is also the monarch of the United Kingdom. She is monarch of the Bahamas in its own right but as she cannot be expected to be there much of the time she appoints a Governor General as her representative on the island. The Governor General exercises power in name only and will always obey the wishes of the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister is elected by the lower house and as such is almost always the leader of the largest party. The Prime Minister appoints a cabinet and together they exercise executive power. The legislative is bicameral. The lower house (or House of Assembly) consists of 41 members, elected at least every five years (the timing is at the PM’s discretion) by a first past the post universal suffrage election.
The upper house (or Senate) is the less influential house. 16 members are appointed by the Governor General. By tradition he appoints 9 on the advice of the Prime Minister, 4 on the advice of the leader of the largest opposition party and 3 by mutual agreement.
On the island of New Providence local government is directly run by the central Government. Everywhere else there is very strong local government, with local authorities being given a large amount of autonomy. This is in part to compensate for New Providence’s domination of central government but is also a logical development for a dispersed multi-island nation. The Bahamas is divided up into 32 administrative areas – usually an island or a small group of islands each of which elects a District Council by first-past-the-post every three years. Councils typically have 5 or 6 councillors and elect their own executive leader. More populous districts are further subdivided into town council areas where a similar system operates. The scheme, which was introduced in 1996, has proved widely popular and there are now calls for it to be introduced on New Providence.
How does the system work? (the practice): The Bahamas had previously been seen as a model democracy, however in recent years there have been concerns over extra-judicial acts by the police force and sections of the government in response to rising crime. In addition, whilst the Bahamas officially practices tolerance, there is a deep well of homophobia in Bahaman society and several members of the government are openly homophobic . This makes achieving representation for homosexuals more difficult.
How did we get here?: The Bahamas were initially settled by pirates and then fell under British control. The government of the Bahamas were dominated for many years by a group of rich white merchants called the “bay street boys”. In response to this the disenfranchised black majority formed a party known as the Progressive Liberal Party. Their ideology is described as populist, and initially a broad coalition of different views were represented within the party. In response to their lobbying, the British gave the Bahamas self governance in 1964, and full independence in 1973.
In 1971 another political force emerged: the Free National Movement. They were formed in the main part by a breakaway faction of the PLP who were frustrated by the PLP’s lack of ideology. They were joined by members of the Bahamas opposition movement – most of whom came from the white community. They have a fiscally conservative and socially liberal ideology – in response to which the PLP has shifted slightly to the left.
The PLP were undefeated until 1992, but since the FNM won their first election (in 1992) they have only been out of power for five years.
Who’s in charge?: Hubert Ingraham of the FLM has been Prime Minister since the 2007 elections – where the FNM won 23 seats to the PLP’s 18. The Bahamas have been an extreme two party system of late: the most successful third party only took 741 votes.
What does it look like?: A series of low flat sandy islands with lush vegetation surrounding shallow lagoons. Most of the Bahamas are well below 15 meters high. The capital Nassau is dominated by enormous hotels.
What are the issues?: The principal industry is tourism and so the management of the beaches and the other drivers for tourism is a big issue – as is rising crime and its negative impact on tourism. As one would expect from such a low country, global warming is a pressing concern – as is the cost of fuel (which is needed to get between islands). There are tensions around immigration, and political parties have not been afraid to prey on them. Haitian immigrants in particular are often subject to discrimination.
A good source of impartial information is: There are a number of private newspapers with a variety of views. The Nassau Guardian is the most read. Bahamas uncensored is the leading political blog. Bahama pundit also has good articles.
A good book is: Race and Politics in the Bahamas is a heavyweight treatment of Bahaman politics, albeit a little dated. Also dated but fascinating is Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? which explains a lot about Bahaman society in the course of telling the story of a famous unsolved murder of the 1940s. The Cocaine Wars talks a lot about the seedier side of Bahaman life.
When are the next elections?: Elections have to be held by 2012.