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Simon Kelner: Bahamas offers up a vision of electoral paradise


Do not chide yourself if this news has passed you by, but in six days' time the people of the Bahamas go to the polls. It is an election that seems to matter a great deal to them, or at least it matters in a way that we who have a jaded palate for democracy would find very striking, and, in many ways, humbling.

The Bahamian electoral system is the one bequeathed to them by their British former colonial masters, a first-past-the-post poll to decide who wins a seat in the House of Representatives (there are 38 constituencies, and a registered electorate of 172,000). Universal suffrage came to the Bahamas only in 1967, and democracy is something they cherish in the way anyone would a gift so recently bestowed.

Everywhere are signs of engagement that make British elections appear so drab and colourless by comparison. Vast numbers of people wear T-shirts proclaiming their support for one of the three main parties: everywhere you go are posters, on walls, on lamp posts, on billboards, hanging from telegraph wires, on virtually every square inch of free public space; and it's what people are talking about – almost to the exclusion of everything else – at work and at home, in bars, restaurants, churches, and meeting places.

I knew I was in the midst of a national obsession when my waitress disappeared midway through dinner service in a Nassau restaurant. I eventually found her, huddled round a television set with most of her colleagues. And you know what they were watching? Live coverage of a political rally. Can you imagine a similar scene in the run-up to a general election in Britain? I'm sorry, sir. Work has to stop. You see, Boris Johnson is making a keynote address. Reductio ad absurdum, as Boris would have it.

Politics in a country like the Bahamas is how it should be: vibrant and connective. Not just that, but there is a huge amount of candour and directness in the campaigning: it would certainly make our elections more interesting if candidates were able to give full vent to their feelings in the Bahamian manner, where political meetings have the same calm deliberation and studied equanimity as an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. And although we showed them how to handle the machinery of a parliamentary democracy, we could learn from them something in the way of openness.

For instance, all of the 133 candidates standing in next Monday's poll have to declare details of their annual income, their liabilities, their assets and their net worth. And while there is much talk of corruption, and of how policy can be adapted for a brown envelope stuffed with cash, there is – at least to an outsider from a country where politics is mired in cynicism, sleaze and cronyism – a refreshing sense that politicians can make a real difference, and that every vote counts. The public's feeling of engagement has a clear effect on turnout: the lowest figure was a mere 87.9 per cent of the electorate in 1987, while an incredible 98.5 per cent turned out to vote in 1997.

When you see the wheels of democracy turning so dynamically, it's a beguiling sight.