Government and Politics

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

The Governmental System

In the late 1980s, the Bahamas had a democratic system based on the British Westminster parliamentary model of government. The 1973 Constitution proclaims the Bahamas a sovereign democratic state; sets requirements for citizenship; guarantees fundamental human rights; establishes the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; and creates three civil service commissions: the Public Service Commission, the Judicial and Legal Commission, and the Police Service Commission. Although an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations since 1973, the Bahamas retains the British monarch as its chief of state, represented in the Bahamas by an appointed governor general.

Chapter III (Articles 15-28) of the Constitution details the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in the Bahamas, including the right to life, liberty, security, and protection of the law; freedom of conscience, expression, assembly, and association; and protection of the privacy of the home and other property from deprivation without compensation. Moreover, the Constitution provides for protection of these rights and freedoms without discrimination based on race, national origin, political opinion, color, creed, or sex. These provisions were not just theoretical considerations but were actually carried out in practice, according to the Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1986.

Constitutional amendments require a combination of an act of Parliament and popular referendum. Entrenched constitutional provisions, such as those relating to the establishment of the civil service or the qualifications for members of Parliament, require a two-thirds majority in both houses and passage by a popular referendum. Specially entrenched provisions, such as those relating to citizenship, fundamental rights, and the establishment and powers of Parliament, the cabinet, and the judiciary, require a three-fourths majority in both houses and passage by referendum.

Parliament consists of a bicameral legislature made up of the sixteen-member Senate and the forty-nine-member House of Assembly. Parliament also technically includes the British monarch represented by the governor general, but that individual serves no real function in the daily parliamentary process. Under the Constitution, Parliament may make laws for the peace and good government of the Bahamas. Laws are generally enacted by Parliament in the following manner. A bill is introduced in the House of Assembly, read three times, debated, and, if passed, becomes an act. The act is read three times in the Senate and then sent to the governor general. The governor general signs the act, which upon being published in the official journal of the government becomes a law. Bills may officially be introduced in either house of Parliament, except for money bills, which may only be introduced in the House of Assembly, and may be passed with or without amendment, subject to the agreement of both houses.

The House of Assembly elects one member from each of fortythree constituencies or single-member districts for terms not to exceed five years. The House of Assembly performs all major legislative functions. The leader of the majority party in the House is appointed prime minister by the governor general, and the leader of the major opposition party is designated as leader of the opposition. The House of Assembly elects a speaker and a deputy speaker to preside over the House.

The number of constituencies is established in Article 68 of the Constitution, but Article 70 mandates a procedural review of these constituencies at least every five years. The Constituencies Commission reviews the number and boundaries of the constituencies, taking into account the number of voters, the needs of sparsely populated areas, and the ability of elected members to maintain contact with voters from a wide geographic area. The Constituencies Commission consists of the speaker of the House of Assembly, a justice of the Supreme Court, and three members of the House of Assembly--two from the majority party and one from the opposition. The 1973 Constitution first established thirty-eight constituencies. That number was increased to forty-three in time for the 1982 elections and to forty-nine for the 1987 elections.

The Senate is appointed by the governor general. Nine members are chosen on the advice of the prime minister, four on the recommendation of the leader of the opposition, and the remaining three on the advice of the prime minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition. The Senate has limited functions in the parliamentary process. It elects a president and a vice president to preside over its proceedings.

The executive authority of government officially rests with the British monarch, represented by the governor general. The general direction and control of government, however, are vested in a cabinet, led by the prime minister, who serves as the chief executive of the government. The cabinet also consists of at least eight other ministers, including the attorney general, who are drawn from the membership of Parliament. In late 1987, the cabinet consisted of the Office of the Attorney General and the heads of eleven ministries: agriculture, trade, and industry; education; employment and immigration; finance; foreign affairs; health; housing and national insurance; tourism; transport and local government; works and utilities; and youth, sports, and community affairs. The minister of finance must be a member of the House of Assembly. If the attorney general is appointed from the Senate, no more than two other ministers may be drawn from the ranks of the Senate; if the attorney general is from the House of Assembly, however, three ministers may be chosen from the Senate. A number of parliamentary secretaries are also appointed from the membership of Parliament to assist the ministers. Permanent secretaries also serve in the ministries; they are appointed by the Public Service Commission to these highest civil service positions. Institutionally, the cabinet collectively is responsible to Parliament. The prime minister is responsible for keeping the governor general informed of the general conduct of the government.

The judiciary of the Bahamas is independent of executive control. It consists of the Court of Appeal at the highest level, followed by the Supreme Court, magistrate is courts, and Family Islands commissioners, who often act as magistrates. The Court of Appeal consists of a president and two other justices. If needed, a final appeal may be made to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. Bahamian law is based on English common law, but a large body of Bahamian statute law also exists.

Local government in the Family Islands falls administratively under the Department of Local Government of the cabinet's Ministry of Transport and Local Government. The Family Islands are divided into nineteen districts administered by twenty-three commissioners appointed by the government and supervised from Nassau. Several of the larger islands with relatively greater populations are split up into several districts. In addition to the commissioners, elected House of Assembly members often deal with local matters, thereby filling the void created by the absence of an elected local government.

Political Dynamics

The history of Bahamian independence is not only the story of a colony breaking away from its mother country. It is also the account of how a political party and nationalist movement, the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), achieved the peaceful transfer of political power from a white elite--the local allies of the colonial power--to an independent black government.

For decades prior to the achievement of internal self- government, the Bahamas' political and economic systems were dominated by a small elite referred to as the "Bay Street Boys," so named because most of their businesses and economic activities were concentrated along Bay Street in Nassau. The postwar era, however, brought about significant changes in the nation's political system and genuine political participation by the masses. In 1953 the first Bahamian political party, the PLP, was formed by blacks discontented with the policies of the governing elite; the PLP's popular success forced the elite in 1958 to form a party of its own, the United Bahamian Party (UBP).

Two events in the 1950s helped propel the PLP into a position of political strength. First, in 1956 an antidiscrimination resolution passed the House of Assembly and kindled political awareness among the black population. The PLP benefited from this awareness and became the party of black Bahamian pride. The second significant event, the 1958 general strike led by Randol Fawkes of the Bahamas Federation of Labour, strengthened the PLP's image as a champion of the working masses. Although the PLP was not directly involved in the strike at first, its leaders observed the strike's success and sought to be identified as the political party associated closely with it. The nineteen-day work stoppage focused world attention on the Bahamas and caused the British Colonial Office to give increased attention to Bahamian affairs. The strike also provided the impetus for electoral reform; the British added four legislative seats to New Providence.

Despite a vigorous campaign, the PLP lost badly to the UBP in the 1962 general election; the party attributed its overwhelming defeat to unfair electoral boundaries. Despite the PLP defeat, however, the UBP could not impede the process of political change in the Bahamas. Steps toward internal self-government proceeded under the UBP as party leader Sir Roland Symonette became the country's first premier (the preindependence title for prime minister) in 1964.

During the next several years of UBP rule, the PLP waged a media and propaganda campaign to focus attention on the alleged unfairness of electoral boundaries. A dramatic act of defiance occurred in 1965 when Lynden O. Pindling, then the official leader of the opposition, protested by throwing the speaker's mace out of a window when the House of Assembly was in session. The PLP proceeded to boycott the House for almost nine months. This action caused a split in the PLP as three House members broke off to form the National Democratic Party. In 1966 the remaining members of the PLP returned to the House, however, in anticipation of upcoming elections; by 1967 new boundaries had been drawn. The PLP attacked the distribution of constituencies as well as the lack of limits on electoral expenses. Although race was an important issue in the elections, disclosures of UBP corruption and conflicts of interest concerning consultant fees and gambling at Freeport also became major campaign themes. The PLP won eighteen seats and was able to form a government with the help of the Labour Party formed by union leader Fawkes in the early 1960s. Pindling became premier of the nation's first independent black government; jubilant supporters labeled him "Black Moses" Pindling.

The PLP moved quickly to consolidate its political power base by calling for general elections in 1968. The election, which took place in an environment of intense racial polarization, resulted in an overwhelming PLP triumph as the party captured twenty-eight of the thirty-eight seats in the House of Assembly. In 1969 further constitutional changes followed a conference in London; full internal self-government was achieved, and Pindling became prime minister.

Although the PLP was riding high, the problem of internal party unrest continued. In 1970 eight PLP members of the House of Assembly were suspended from the party for acting "contrary to the interests of the party." This faction went on to form a new party known as the Free Progressive Liberal Party, severely slashing the PLP's majority in the House of Assembly. In 1971 opposition groups united under the banner of a new party, the Free National Movement (FNM); its membership consisted of the Free Progressive Liberal Party, the remnants of the UBP, and the small NDP.

Despite a united opposition in the 1972 general elections, the PLP achieved a commanding parliamentary majority, winning twenty- eight seats compared with the FNM's ten. The PLP's tabling of the independence issue in 1972 caused a split in the already weak opposition. Several long-standing UBP members who opposed independence resigned from the FNM, leaving the party weak and divided. The FNM party was weakened further as independence arrived in 1973. In 1976 five FNM House members resigned and formed the Bahamian Democratic Party (BDP).

General elections in 1977 consisted of competition among the PLP, the FNM, the new BDP, and a small party known as the Vanguard Nationalist and Socialist Party (Vanguard Party), which had been formed in 1971 by some members of the PLP's youth organization. The PLP once again scored a resounding victory, winning thirty House seats compared with six for the BDP and two for the FNM; the Vanguard Party received only fifty-five votes in five contested races. By 1979 the major opposition parties had merged once again into a reconstituted FNM. The House was increased to forty-three seats for the 1982 general elections; the election itself was a contest among the PLP, the FNM, and the Vanguard Party. Once again the PLP emerged victorious with 32 seats to the FNM's 11 seats; the Vanguard Party, contesting 18 seats and receiving just 173 votes, did not win any representation.

The PLP's continued popularity and electoral successes since its first victory in 1967 were explained by several factors. Under Pindling's leadership, major public works and government-sponsored housing programs improved material conditions for the majority of Bahamians. In addition, PLP victories reflected sociopolitical stability and therefore stimulated private enterprise. In fact, improved material conditions under PLP rule were most probably brought about by the increased economic opportunities for all Bahamians. PLP popularity was also reinforced by several royal visits in the 1970s and 1980s. Prime Minister Pindling himself, the father of Bahamian independence and a charismatic leader, was an important factor in PLP success. Finally, the PLP benefited from the weakness of the opposition. In the late 1980s, the FNM had no experience in office, nor did it espouse an ideology or program attractive enough to draw voters away from the PLP, which remained the party identified with black majority rule and the attainment of Bahamian nationhood.

In 1987 the PLP and the FNM remained the two major political parties, represented respectively by Prime Minister Pindling and Kendal Isaacs, the leader of the opposition in the House. Both parties were moderate pro-Western parties committed to democracy and free enterprise. The racial factor had ceased to be an issue in Bahamian politics, as both political parties had a black majority. A few white Bahamians held high-level civil service and political positions. Women participated in all levels of government and politics; in 1987 several women served as permanent secretaries of the executive government, one as a member of the House, and four as members of the Senate.

The nation's political culture in the 1980s was characterized by a strong tradition of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Three privately owned daily newspapers, two published in Nassau and one in Freeport, were printed. The newspapers frequently carried reports of parliamentary and public debate. In addition, several newsweeklies, some of which were published by political parties, were available. Although the press was free and privately run, radio and television stations were run solely by the government and were accused of restricting access for the opposition. The government and the PLP received favorable treatment from the broadcasting corporation to the detriment of the FNM and even PLP dissidents. In an attempt to overcome this broadcasting barrier, in late 1986, the FNM broadcast a fiery speech by Isaacs from a privately owned radio station in Florida.

The June 1987 general elections took place against a backdrop of government corruption vis--vis the transit of illegal drugs, related socioeconomic problems of rising crime and increased drug addiction, and redrawing of electoral boundaries. Prime Minister Pindling's government was hit by a major drug scandal soon after his 1982 electoral triumph. A 1983 report on United States television alleged that the prime minister was involved in the drug trade. Pindling responded by establishing a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the charge. In its December 1984 finding, the commission contended that the drug trade permeated Bahamian society. Several ministers and senior government officials were implicated, as well as the Police Force and the Customs Department and Immigration Department. Although the report did not offer any evidence of direct involvement by Pindling, it did note that the prime minister had spent eight times more money than he had earned over a seven-year period.

The scandal caused a major shake-up in the PLP government. In October 1984, finance minister and PLP deputy leader Arthur Hanna resigned in protest of Pindling's handling of the situation. Two ministers who opposed Pindling's actions were dismissed by the prime minister as he defended his political position, and two others resigned because of investigations of their involvement in the drug trade. Although Pindling was untouched by evidence, his political position was weakened by the seriousness of the charges involved. Nevertheless, the prime minister refused to call early elections and decided to weather the political storm.

The drug transit issue also was intimately related to many of the nation's socioeconomic problems, including a rising crime rate and a substantial increase in drug addiction. These problems had also been fueled by a high unemployment rate, particularly among the nation's youth. In 1986 the Bahamas National Task Force Against Drugs reported that the domestic drug trade had assumed epidemic proportions; the ready availability of cocaine had resulted in high addiction levels.

In the mid-1980s, several private programs attempted to address the problem. Following the report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry, the government became increasingly involved in combating drug addiction. Legislation in 1986 introduced stiff penalties for drug traffickers. In late 1986, the government's Drug Abuse Rehabilitation Program received funds from the United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control to increase activities in the prevention and treatment of drug abuse. The government also increased spending for the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF), most of which was directed to antidrug operations.

In 1986 the Constituencies Commission's procedural review of electoral constituencies for the House of Assembly prompted significant political debate. The commission proposed adding six seats to the forty-three-member House; five seats would be added for New Providence and one for Grand Bahama. The opposition FNM objected to the addition of so many seats for New Providence, when only 1,500 voters had been added to the electoral register since the 1982 general elections. They also alleged that this was a deliberate scheme to slow electoral registration in Grand Bahama, an FNM stronghold. For the 1982 elections, 11,803 voters were registered in Grand Bahama, whereas only 8,696 were registered for the 1987 elections; according to an FNM member of Parliament, the number of voters would have been considerably higher if the registration process had not been slowed. Criticism was also made of the high representation given to Andros Island when compared with Great Abaco Island and Eleuthera. In 1982 Andros Island had three constituencies with voter registrations of 3,542, as compared with Great Abaco Island's two constituencies with voter registrations of 3,213 and Eleuthera's three constituencies with voter registrations of 5,100. The Constituencies Commission for 1987 proposed no changes in these electorates despite the increase of Great Abaco Island's voters to 3,608 and the decrease of Andros Island's voters to 3,368, along with Eleuthera's continued 5,100 voters. Opposition leaders also criticized the addition of electoral constituencies in general because it indicated an unwillingness to delegate power to local government; adding constituencies to the House of Assembly continued the system whereby members represented both national and local interests.

Observers had generally agreed that the 1987 election would be the closest in Bahamian history; indeed, many believed that Isaacs would lead the FNM to victory. However, the PLP scored a stunning triumph, capturing 54 percent of the votes and 31 of the 49 House seats. The FNM gained fifteen seats, and two went to independent candidates. The winner of the remaining seat was undetermined as of late June 1987. In an electoral postmortem, Isaacs indicated that public concern over corruption was apparently not as significant as he had thought. Equally important, however, was Pindling's skillful appeal to nationalistic sentiments during the campaign. Responding to United States government criticisms of the Bahamian drug problem, the prime minister charged that his country had become the scapegoat for the inability of the United States to control drugs. In one rally, Pindling turned the tables on the United States by accusing the Central Intelligence Agency and Drug Enforcement Administration of running drugs through the Bahamas. Pindling also gained political mileage through his public expressions of outrage over the decision of a subcommittee of the United States Senate Foreign Relations committee to send a delegation to monitor the election. In the wake of the PLP's electoral success, many expected in mid-1987 to see the political rehabilitation of at least some of the cabinet members who had resigned over their alleged involvement in the drug trade.

For more recent information about the government, see Facts about the Bahamas.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress