A history of Cayman party politics

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The 2009 elections clearly showed that political parties could get the job done in getting out the vote and winning elections. Independent candidates privately complained afterward that it was simply too difficult to go up against the established grassroots party structure and the significant funding it provides candidates.

But disaffection since the 2009 vote; with jobless rates increasing, economic opportunities seen to be 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.

No party politics

It’s tough to have a discussion in Cayman about party politics without bringing up Truman Bodden, even though Truman himself 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, or NDP, was a powerful force in the country.

“But the political parties of the ‘60s failed,” Truman said when speaking to a Cayman Free Press journalist last year. “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 included 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 make up of the group itself. Often that leadership question and decisions on 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 can lead to a collection of yes-men who get selected based on their previous agreement 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, an issue which he says has led to a massive spike in the country’s public sector debt and a the current disarray with public accounts as lawmakers scrambled to embark on projects before their terms ended. 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 published 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: 1) a strong “grassroots” foundation that comes from the voting district, not from the perceived capitol of the group’s voting power base, 2) A system of “checks and balances” that sets out specific rules for a party platform, integrity and transparency, and 3) regular and open communications about what parties are up to–which includes 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 are casting their ballots based on who they think is a nice man or woman.

“Unofficial teams and unofficial leaders, you don’t 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.”

Strangely, 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.

Roy agrees; other than in terms of 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 itself 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.”


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