Is the party over?

You can hear the talk on the street,
on the radio, even among current and former legislators.

Since the world economic decline
started to hit Cayman in late 2008, the rumblings have grown steadily louder. People
are starting to wonder if the current two-party political system really is the
best thing for the country.

Indeed, some appear to have already
made up their minds. 

“This is the most divided I’ve seen
my country,” said one respondent in a recent www.caycompass.com online poll.
“There’s a lot of hatred out there. I wish they would get rid of the party
system.”

That non-scientific poll measured a
67 per cent response from those who thought Cayman’s two-party system was a
“disaster”. A mere 13 per cent thought the two-party system would work, given
time to sort itself out.

Despite that, Caymanian voters had –
just 17 months before – overwhelmingly elected the United Democratic Party to a
strong majority in the Legislative Assembly. The opposition People’s
Progressive Movement lost managed to retain five seats.

A highly qualified slate of
independent candidates in the 2009 general elections won only one legislative
seat in May 2009.

The 2009 elections clearly showed
that political parties could get out the vote and win elections. Independent
candidates privately complained afterward that it was simply too difficult to
go up against the established grass-roots party structure and the significant
funding it provides candidates. 

Disaffection since the 2009 vote,
with jobless rates increasing, economic opportunities apparently shrinking, and
crime rising, has led to a more vocal round of “throw the bums out” sentiment
this year. And the political parties are paying attention.

“This situation has led to a great
deal of hardship in the Cayman Islands and our people are suffering,” says UDP
Chairman Billy Reid. “They blame party politics for this situation, but this is
really not correct.”

“Politics in the old days seemed to
be so much simpler…but things have changed,” PPM Chairman Anton Duckworth
added, agreeing with Mr. Reid that voters were, perhaps unfairly, blaming the
poor economic situation on two-party politics.

Others interviewed by the Observer
see these comments as a self-serving mantra from organisations seeking to
retain their power and relevance in Caymanian society.

“What else would you expect them to
say?” says former lawmaker and attorney Truman Bodden.

 

The case against party politics

It’s tough to write about party
politics in Cayman without bringing up Truman Bodden, even though Truman says
he has never been a member of a political party.

Truman served in the Cayman Islands
Legislative Assembly from 1976 until he was voted out in 2000 – just before a
political coup d’etat brought about the dawn of a new era of party politics,
circa 2001.

However, that wasn’t the first
appearance of a political party system in Cayman.

In the 1960s, Truman says the
National Democratic Party, (NDP), was a powerful force.

“But the political parties of the ‘60s
failed,” Truman says. “I understand it was because the public didn’t want it.
They felt they were better represented by independent candidates.”

From 1976 to 2000, in Truman’s view,
there were no political parties in Cayman.

“We deliberately kept out…political
parties, because of the obvious damage they’ve done in other Caribbean
countries,” he says.

In Truman’s view, it wasn’t just the
departure of the United Kingdom’s Union Jack that led to the deterioration of
Britain’s former territories in the Caribbean. He believes the appearance of
political parties sped the decline of those countries’ economies following
their moves toward independence.

“The political parties’ powers
reigned supreme,” Truman says.

So the politicians of Truman’s day
formed what were known as “teams”. The use of this word will often bring snorts
of derision from today’s elected lawmakers, who view differences between
“teams” and political parties as almost inconsequential. Truman disagrees.

“They were not a rigid, organised
group,” he says. “They were independent candidates, many of whom had similar
views… but who would act independently in the best interests of the country.”

Among those groups were the Unity
Team, the National Team, the Dignity Team and the Cayman Team, to name a few.
Truman says how organised they were – and who led the team – depended on the
makeup of the group itself. Often decisions on leadership and on other issues
weren’t made until after a general election.

“In later years, there were (team)
manifestos,” he says. “In the early days we didn’t have them. But the
manifestos were broad statements of policy only.”

The advantage of the loose structure
was that each elected legislator had a chance to make their views known, and if
they disagreed with a particular “team” view, they often expressed that. Truman
says that doesn’t happen in the modern party politics system.

“You were entitled to disagree,” he
says. “It could create surprises because members voted as they wished. A
legislator was not forced to vote against what he feels, and we didn’t have a
party manifesto that we had to defend all the time.”

Moreover, Truman says the team system
led to each lawmaker being voted in on individual merits. He says the party
system at least has the potential to lead to a collection of people who get
selected based on their previous agreements to toe the party line.

“(The position of government
minister) is the only position you can hold without any qualifications,” Truman
says.

Truman also believes the party system
has created a rush to get things done within a single four-year term, which he
says has led to a massive spike in the country’s public sector debt and the
current disarray with public accounts as lawmakers scramble to embark on
projects before their terms end. The troubles with government’s current
accounting system were also partly caused by that rush, he says.

Although he believes there are a
multitude of problems with the current party system, Truman says it will be
extremely difficult to dislodge, particularly since Cayman’s updated
Constitution serves to “entrench” the political parties, in his view.

“It’s going to make it a lot harder,”
Truman says. “Political parties are money machines.” 

 

Political party positives

University College of the Cayman
Islands President Roy Bodden has been both a team member and a political party
member. He is as staunch a defender of party politics as anyone in the Cayman
Islands, even though the author and academic says his vote-seeking days are
over.

He also disagrees with Truman on
teams’ resemblance to political parties.

“In 1996, Team Cayman was really the
model of a true political party,” Mr. Bodden says of the group that included
current legislators Arden McLean and Ezzard Miller. “We had a political
platform, a clear hierarchy of authority and a clear road map.”

Roy says whether the label ‘teams’ or
‘parties’ is used is somewhat immaterial. In his view, either organisation must
have three main components: a strong grass- roots foundation that comes from
the voting district, not from the perceived capital of the group’s voting power
base; a system of checks and balances that sets out specific rules for a party
platform, integrity and transparency; and regular and open communications about
what parties are doing, including open caucus meetings and annual conventions.

The type of government advocated by
Truman Bodden is what Roy calls an “ad-hocracy”. In other words, voters don’t
know what candidates truly stand for and cast their ballots based on who they
think is a nice man or woman.

“Unofficial teams and unofficial
leaders, you don’t know who’s the leader….I call that pirate politics,” Roy
says “You vote – you get all kinds of permutations. Those are not lasting and
permanent; it’s not good for the country. 

“People want to know, if you vote for
this guy, these people, this is the direction they want to go in this country,”
he says. “So you have a clear choice.”

Many have argued that Cayman’s
current two-party political system has provided just the opposite of what Roy
describes, and that there are truly few real differences in policy between the
UDP and the PPM in any case. 

Roy agrees, except for leadership
style, which he believes is quite different between the two groups.

What has occurred, in Roy’s view, is
that the typical political party structure has been allowed to degenerate in
Cayman.

“When you don’t have that kind of
sophistication and it’s built on personalities and people don’t have platforms,
they mud-sling and put down one another,” he says. “It becomes personalised.

“From my hearing, that’s why people
are disillusioned. They don’t see a plan.”

Regardless of the current perceived
failings of the political party system, Roy believes the system must survive
and be improved upon if Cayman is to move forward as a modern, 21st Century
democracy.

“I believe in the party system,” he
says. “But it is the obligation of the party to elevate and inform, first of
all, its members and then the wider public.”

 

Room for one more?

A number of former political office
holders in the Cayman Islands have left their previous positions with the UDP
and PPM since losing their seats in the 2005 or 2009 elections. Several of
those members who lost in 2005 ran as independents four years later.

Although he has not said so publicly,
former PPM minister Charles Clifford, who left the party this year, is being
talked about as an independent candidate for the 2013 elections.

But Clifford has not ruled out a
return to party politics – with a different organisation.

“It is possible, it may be called a
party, it may be called something else,” Clifford says. “I think there is a
great need for some type of political alternative in Cayman.”

“I’m not against party politics.
There’s a certain amount of value in party politics; it brings with it a
certain amount of discipline and organisation.”

However, Clifford says Cayman’s party
politics system hasn’t matured and seems to be entrenched in the belief that
the same model from the two-party regional system must be adopted.

“We are beginning to see some very,
very serious warning signs,” Clifford says, adding that he believes the
two-party system has created an “us-versus-them” mentality in the Cayman
Islands on several levels. “I see that social harmony rapidly disappearing, and
it’s not a good thing.”

For instance, in debates at the
Legislative Assembly, Clifford says it has been a rare sight in the past decade
for a motion made by a government member to be supported by an opposition
member, or vice-versa.

“The culture and the model that we’ve
adopted in Cayman doesn’t allow for that,” he says. “Even if you agree with
something that’s being done, you tend to sit on the sidelines and not openly
show your support for it.”

“Members of a political party are
often not allowed to vote with their conscience, and that, in my view, is fundamentally
wrong. If you have a system that is stifling creativity and people are not
allowed to…express what they are thinking on issues…then the public doesn’t get
to hear that.”

 

The party view

Duckworth, the PPM chairman, says
there’s no reason why there must be only two political parties in the Cayman
Islands. But he believes that Clifford’s concern about the restriction of
debate by party politics is a “mistaken view”.

“I think there needs to be a bit of
realism about what goes on (in the Legislative Assembly),” Duckworth says.

The PPM chairman believes many in
Cayman hold the opinion that the legislature is somewhere lawmakers go to “do
battle” and that whoever can make the best argument wins the day and gets the
votes. In reality, he says the decision has been made long before a bill or a
motion comes to the house. 

“This is a forum…where the government
must tell the public – if it hasn’t already – what it is proposing, and why,”
Duckworth says. “And the opposition is going to be able to debate it. But
nobody should kid themselves about where the decisions are made.”

Duckworth says that doesn’t mean the
public proceedings in the assembly are merely a “rubber stamp”. He says they
serve as an important public forum where government’s positions are forced to
be made public and where the opposition party gets a platform to express its
views.

Reid, the UDP chairman, also
discounts views about Cayman’s new Constitution entrenching or embedding
political parties. He says the 1972 Cayman Islands Constitution was, in effect,
the true beginning of party politics since it allowed elected members of the LA
the right to choose four members to serve on government’s Executive Council
(now called Cabinet) with the Governor.

“In order to choose these four members…the
MLA’s had to form alliances,” Reid says, adding his belief that those groups
were more or less political parties, even if they were called teams at the
time. 

He points out that most modern,
progressive countries have – in one form or another – a system of party
politics, and that two-party systems are not just limited to the Caribbean or
to former British Overseas Territories that have gone independent.

“While this system may not be
perfect, it is the best political system that has been devised and it has stood
the test of time,” Reid says.

Duckworth says he agrees the party
system obviously delivers results “mainly at election time”. However, he says
that’s not the only role it plays.

“Between elections, it helps the
government to do its job,” he says.

Party caucuses and open forums
provide direct lines of communication between the voters and the MLAs in an
organised way and allow an easier platform for voters who want to remind
elected leaders why they were put in those positions.

“The electorate is getting wiser by
the year,” he says. “And we certainly need to be critical of what our
politicians are saying.”

“We’re at a painful stage of
transition now…and not just because of the global economy.”

Editor’s note: The Observer on Sunday
purposely did not interview any current elected members of the Legislative
Assembly for this story. Political party chairmen were interviewed to represent
the views of their respective organisations. Also, in cases where two
individuals who are interviewed have the same last name, their first name has
been used.