Reflections on Majority Rule 2018 (better late than never)

Fifty-one years and two months ago, on January 10, 1967, the Colony of the Bahama Islands held the election that concluded with what we have come to call “Majority Rule”. In 2014, January 10 was officially legislated as a public holiday. And four years after the creation of the Majority Rule Day public holiday, we remain divided as a people as to how, or even whether, to mark this moment, to commemorate this event.

The problem is fundamentally political.

On one hand, it’s politically partisan. No matter how we spin history, it’s impossible to separate majority rule from the ascension of the Progressive Liberal Party to the government. The election of the PLP constituted Majority Rule. Put another way, the black majority of this nation chose the PLP to represent it.

It’s also structurally political. Majority Rule is about the right of the racial majority in The Bahamas to direct its own fate. Before 1967, Bahamians of European descent were socially, economically and politically supreme, Bahamians of non-European descent subordinate. Being part of the white minority conferred a whole system of privileges that the black majority was denied. These included things as simple as access to health care and a high school education, protection from exploitation in the workplace, access to electricity, running water, telephone service and basic sanitation, the opportunity to start businesses or enter the professions, the ability to borrow money from banks, the ability to save money in banks, the right to own land where one pleased, the ability to vote for people who looked like us to represent us in the place where laws were made, and so on.

These two elements, the partisan and the structural, combine to make the celebration of Majority Rule Day a point of discomfort for many Bahamians.

The problem of party politics

Opposition politics

First things first. It seems very difficult for contemporary opponents of the Progressive Liberal Party to celebrate their victory on January 10, 1967. Let’s face it. That victory represents a political defeat, one when a way of life that was three centuries old came to an abrupt end.  The United Bahamian Party, formed in 1958 in answer to the growing political consciousness of the Bahamian people, dissolved less than 15 years later, in large part because Majority Rule made what it stood for obsolete. But upon that dissolution,  several former members of the UBP helped constitute the Free National Movement in 1972, and they have carried the pain of the 1967 defeat into the political climate of the twenty-first century. You can hear echoes of the UBP philosophy in social media discussions that suggest, sometimes outright, sometimes by implication, that the country was better governed before 1967: the budget was balanced, the education was better, corruption was non-existent, Bahamians were more mannerly, etc. These perspectives mirror and replicate paternalistic arguments advanced first by the British throughout the colonial era, then the UBP in the 1960s and then by the FNM in the 1970s––that the black majority was not ready to govern itself, that it had to be taught how to do so, slowly, and with extreme caution. For the Bahamians who fall into this category, Majority Rule Day is an unwarranted celebration of something that they believe (as the UBP and the FNM predicted in the sixties and the seventies) to have failed.

Governing politics

But there’s another side to this issue. Let’s not forget that it took The Bahamas 47 years to make Majority Rule Day a public holiday, and the Progressive Liberal Party, the immediate beneficiary of Majority Rule, was in power for 33 of those 47 years. Indeed, the social revolution that brought about Majority Rule swept the PLP into power and kept that party there for twenty-five years straight. It would seem only logical that the party of Lynden Pindling, the Black Moses who led the Black Bahamian Israelites out of the bondage of Bay Street’s Egypt and towards the Promised Land on the tenth day of the first month should enshrine that day, should make it the first public holiday of this Bahamian era.

But it did not. It was not until the Bahamian Black Moses had been dead almost 14 years that January 10 was elevated to a public holiday. How do we explain this?

I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that to focus too closely on the actual events of January 10, 1967 was not in the interest of the PLP of the 1970s and the 1980s. In the first place, the PLP did not actually win the election that was held on January 10. The result of the 1967 election was a tie: 18 seats for the UBP and 18 for the PLP. No government could be formed until that broken. We all know now that in order for either party to form a government, negotiations had to be carried out with two men who were members of neither major political party of the day. Those negotiations, as we can see from the newspaper at the top of this blog post, were not finalized until January 14, some four days after the election, and they ended by giving the PLP a slim margin of one seat in the House of Assembly. (For those people who don’t know the details, the two men were Randol Fawkes, who represented the Labour party, and Alvin Braynen, an independent. Braynen accepted the position of Speaker, which meant that he did not normally have a vote in the House, and Fawkes agreed to form a coalition government with the PLP, becoming the first Minister of Labour in the Pindling cabinet.)

Perhaps the reason that Majority Rule was not made a public holiday during the first 25 years of the PLP’s rule was that the PLP victory dependent entirely upon the actions of two individuals who were not members of the Progressive Liberal Party. The scrutiny that would have accompanied the creation of a holiday before that date meant that PLP would have had to modify its liberation mythology, the one that placed Lynden Pindling alone the head of the movement towards freedom. It would have meant recognizing the contribution of a white Bahamian and the contribution of a labour leader—a labour leader whose independence of spirit meant that he had criticized the PLP when he had seen fit to do so.

And so, as uncomfortable as the commemoration of January 10, 1967 makes people who oppose the PLP as a political party, it has also been regarded with considerable ambivalence by the PLP itself.

The problem of structural politics

Beyond party politics, though, it would appear that there are other issues being debated that indicate an extension of that ambivalence further than members of one political party or another. Even for some of those people who recognize the significance of the 1960s to the expansion of democracy in The Bahamas, there is debate about the nature and the timing of the achievement.

Why 1967 is the right date

First of all, there’s a question of whether the 1967 date is the most significant one. There is a school of thought that suggests that we should consider recognizing November 26 as Majority Rule Day, rather than January 10.

For those who aren’t aware, November 26, 1962 is the date on which Bahamian women voted for the first time. The proponents of this position make the argument that the extension of the suffrage to women had more significance in terms of creating a democratic majority than the almost accidental election of the PLP in 1967. Key to this particular argument is the idea that what we should be commemorating when we honour Majority Rule is the ability of the Bahamian populace to participate freely in the democratic process, rather than any particular outcome of that process. This argument is bolstered by the fact that, even though the PLP obtained only a small minority of the seats in parliament in 1962, it did win the popular vote.

But this position relies on certain assumptions that are not borne out by the facts. Women’s Suffrage was among a number of critical electoral reforms that followed the 1958 General Strike. Before that, there was plenty that was undemocratic about Bahamian general elections.

Until 1942, voting was done by a show of hands in open halls; bribery for votes was widespread and blatant. It often took the form of a torn banknote. Half of the note would be given to the elector before he voted. If he raised his hand at the right moment for the correct candidate, he would be given the other half of the banknote at the end of the election.

Property, not age, was the primary qualification to be able to vote. If you did not own your own property, or if you did not rent a property valued at over a certain amount, you could not vote. On the other hand, each man was permitted to vote as many times and in as many places as he owned property. The Bahamas was divided into districts that returned two or three representatives to parliament, and the wealthier you were, the more votes you could use. General elections were held over the period of three to four weeks to allow landowners to visit every island on which they owned land and vote.

In this scenario, ordinary black Bahamian men were at an extreme disadvantage. If they did not own property, they could not vote at all. If they did own land, the likelihood that they owned more than one piece of land was slender. And if they did (like, say, L. W. Young) own multiple plots of land, the chances that they owned that land in more than one or two voting districts was almost negligible.

At the other end of the spectrum stood a handful of men at the top of society. By the middle of the twentieth century, these men were being referred to as “the Bay Street Boys”, and they made a point of acquiring land on every single island of The Bahamas. This gave them the right to vote in every single district, and thereby affect the outcome of any general election. The idea of one person, one vote, even as late as 1958, was not one that had any traction in The Bahamas.

But the property vote (known as plural voting) was not the only way that a single Bahamian could conceivably cast numerous votes in an election. There was also the company vote—something that conferred a vote to men who served as directors on the boards of companies for each directors’ position that they held. This rendered the influential even more so, and guaranteed that a handful of white Bahamian businessmen could affect the outcome of any election.

In the wake of the General Strike of January 1958, the British colonial government  strongly recommended that a series of basic reforms be put in place in the Bahamian electoral system. Among these reforms were the extension of the vote to Bahamian women, the abolition of the company vote, and the abolition of the property vote. Two of these three recommendations were put in place in time for the 1962 election. Women were allowed to vote for the first time, and the company vote was abolished. But the plural vote remained, albeit in a restricted fashion. Landowners had the choice of voting in their residential district and one other.

This was a limitation on the excesses of the past, but it was not the kind of suffrage that we associate with fair and open democracies, where one adult has one vote and one vote only. That particular electoral reform was not implemented until 1964, when the new constitution prescribed new constituencies, which elected ONE parliamentarian each, and each adult had one vote, subject to residential qualifications. The result: 1967 was the first such election.

That knotty problem called “race”

Another source of deep discomfort with the celebration of majority rule has to do with the question of who the “majority” referred to. It’s apparent that we are still deeply conflicted about the Bahamian history of racial discrimination. But here are the facts. Until 1967, Bahamians were separated—the word should probably be segregated—into separate and definitely unequal groups. These groups were racially defined: people of European heritage occupied a highly privileged position in society, while people of African and mixed descent were subordinate. Numerous structural strategies maintained this situation, among them the various anti-democratic electoral strategies mentioned above. Majority rule meant, quite simply, that the members of the government for the first time represented, at least in appearance, the majority of the Bahamian population.

There’s one final reason why people are deeply ambivalent about this holiday, and it’s this: although majority rule for Black Bahamians was attained in 1967, the majority of contemporary Bahamians feel unrepresented by the governments they elect. The question, quite fairly, is raised: what was truly gained by majority rule?

Who’s the majority, anyway?

I want to come back to this point, because it’s valid, and it’s worth its own blog post. But that’s another reason why we question the value of this day.

Let me try and suggest an answer.

Each generation faces its own struggles. In situations where freedom has been denied to any portion of a population, it takes time for that freedom to be felt and experienced by all. Our grandparents triumphed with their achievement of majority rule. But we have not advanced the struggle far enough. We live in a society where significant majorities—Bahamian women, for one example, and Bahamians who were not born before independence—remain underrepresented. Women comprise a slim majority (51%) of the population, but are still denied basic civil rights. This does not constitute majority rule.

Further than that: the true majority of the population, Bahamians under the age of 45, is marginalized and unrepresented in the legislature. They are undereducated, poorly served by social programmes, underemployed, and leaving. For them, the concept of majority rule is a cruel joke.

But it is possible to criticize the present while honouring the past. That, I believe, is our duty as we face Majority Rule Day every year. There is one major point about this new holiday: it forces us to face our social divisions, past and present, and forces us to talk to one another. It doesn’t allow us to forget or ignore the injustices we have inherited and never resolved. And for that I’m grateful.

Facebook Live video of Majority Rule Symposium 2018


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s