Bahamas winners credit first-time voters
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
NASSAU - The Progressive Liberal Party's stunning return to power after a decade's absence is being credited to young, first-time voters looking for a new direction for the Bahamas after feeling neglected by the outgoing Free National Movement.
No one can say for sure what percentage of the young vote went to Liberal candidates, including newly sworn Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie. But party leaders say anecdotal evidence from Thursday's polls, and the party's carnival-like rallies featuring fireworks and popular entertainers, suggest they were right to focus their campaign on attracting young voters.
During his swearing-in ceremony Friday, Christie thanked the thousands of young Bahamians who ``turned to me and my party in earnest hope for a brighter future.
''I pledge that I shall spare no effort in proving myself in the confidence and trust they have posed in me,'' he said.
Of the country's 144,758 registered voters, about 30 percent are between the ages of 18 and 30.
In the days leading up to Thursday's election, many young voters expressed concern that, despite the economic boom of the 1990s, the Free National Movement had not done enough for the average Bahamian.
''There is a large pool of young, dissatisfied intelligent people,'' said Fred Mitchell, a newly elected Liberal member of Parliament. ``I recently saw a survey that shows on average it takes a college graduate two years to find a job once they get back to the Bahamas.''
Liberal party chairman Bradley Roberts said there are various unemployment rates mentioned, but the party believes the rate is about 11 percent.
To many young voters, affordable housing, national health insurance and lack of job advancement -- all of which the Liberals have promised to address -- were placed on the back burner in favor of foreign investors.
As an example, Mitchell noted complaints from Bahamian chefs who said it was easier for an unqualified foreign chef to enter the country and become manager over a qualified Bahamian.
It was these dissatisfied young people -- along with older party loyalists -- who were crucial in giving the Liberals their landslide victory. According to still preliminary results, the PLP, led by Christie, won 29 of 40 seats. The ousted Free National Movement received seven seats, with party leader Tommy Turnquest failing even to win back his own seat. Meanwhile, four independent candidates captured the rest.
Rob Allyn, an American media consultant working with the Progressive Liberal Party, said the party resonated with young voters on many fronts. Christie, a charismatic and articulate leader who speaks the queen's English as easily as he speaks the local vernacular, attracted voters to the party by sticking to his message: ``This is not your grandfather's PLP.''
That PLP, which was ousted in 1992 by the Free National Movement after 25 years in office, was tarred with allegations of corruption and drug trafficking, something FNM leaders unsuccessfully campaigned on in this year's elections. Christie himself once bolted from the party in disgust over the allegations.
In addition, Christie brought in several young candidates, most of whom were victorious in Thursday's election, toppling popular Free National Movement politicians, including Cabinet ministers.
`A NEW PARTY'
''They are young and energetic and give people a completely different view of the party,'' Allyn said. 'Perry captured the young vote by maintaining the positive values of the party. He pushed `Bahamas first,' a deep commitment to social welfare programs, and also presented an honest reformer and pro-growth platform that were not the traditional hallmarks of the PLP.''
Said Rukenya Demeritte, a 23-year-old massage therapist: ``This is a new party. New faces, new intentions, a brand new future for the Bahamian people.''
What that future entails, however, remains to be seen as Christie begins to organize his Cabinet under the watchful eyes of both Bahamians and Americans.
For the most part, both opposition and Liberal members feel U.S.-Bahamian relations will remain positive through the transition, but the Progressive Liberals do have some damage control to do with foreign investors. In promoting Bahamians first, the party sent a clear message to foreign investors that it wanted tougher restrictions on foreign investments and ownership within the Bahamas.
''The PLP will be very friendly to foreign investors. The question is whether foreign investors will believe them,'' said former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, who returns to Parliament as a member of the opposition. ``They are going to have to do some of the things we did.''
According to one U.S. government official, the United States will be especially interested to see what the new Bahamian government does about recent bank secrecy laws that were passed under the leadership of the Free National Movement. Those laws, which make it much harder for wealthy individuals to hide their money in the Bahamas, were enacted under pressure from the Clinton administration and several European countries. The Liberals have promised to review the laws.
''Many of us thought the former prime minister and his government acted precipitously in stepping out in front of his Caribbean colleagues without consulting them,'' said Mitchell, who as a spokesman for the opposition in the previous government opposed the legislation.
But that is just one of the issues the party has to confront, according to Greg Bethel, an economist in the government's fisheries department.
''I would be lying if I were to say, economically, we haven't made some gains,'' Bethel said. ``Socially the people are crying out. A lot of the people are hurting.''