As the polls close on Wednesday evening following the Cayman Islands general election, the real race for power could be just about to begin.
With the prospect of neither of the two main parties gaining enough seats to form a government looming large, a coalition remains a distinct possibility.
It could take up to a week from the day the polls close to the announcement of a new premier, if there is no clear winner on the day, though politicians believe the matter will be settled quickly.
Much of the negotiations will take place behind the scenes with serious jockeying for position likely to begin Wednesday night as the make-up of the new Legislative Assembly becomes clear.
If neither party gains enough seats to select the premier, the Cayman Islands Constitution requires that a meeting of the assembly is called and a recorded vote takes place among the 18 members. The candidate who wins the backing of the majority of the elected members will be appointed premier by the governor.
Veteran politicians who have been through many election cycles say the leadership will likely be thrashed out in a series of phone calls and face-to-face meetings between the key players in the immediate aftermath of the vote. By the time the assembly is called, an informal agreement between members will likely have been reached.
Much of the horse trading is taking place already. Several independents, including the Coalition for Cayman candidates, have publicly ruled out working with the United Democratic Party, though UDP leader McKeeva Bush believes their attitude may change once the results become known.
“I’ve been down this road before,” said Mr. Bush, a veteran of previous coalition governments. “They say a lot of things, but once they realise they can’t form a government they are scampering to call us and get us involved. That is the right thing to do. What is wrong is them coming out and saying they are not going to work with people who the voters have elected.”
Publicly, both the UDP and the rival People’s Progressive Movement leadership have expressed confidence that they will get the 10 seats required to win leadership. But others, including Roy McTaggart, an independent endorsed by the Coalition for Cayman, believe a coalition government is almost certain.
“This is one election where the result is very difficult to call,” he said. “I think we are going to see a coalition government, but who leads that is up in the air. I’m not ruling out the possibility of a coalition led by independents if there are people elected with enough in common to form a government.”
Mr. McTaggart stopped short of putting forward himself as a contender for the leadership. Should the C4C get a handful of candidates through the door they will likely look toward whichever candidate got the most votes as the person to back for a leadership role, he said.
Premier Juliana O’Connor-Connolly said she was ready and willing to play a role in any coalition government if she regains her Cayman Brac seat.
“I believe at this stage it is anybody’s ball game,” she said. “Once the people have spoken we owe it to the country to get the right people together and I’m prepared to be one of those people.”
She said she was willing to lead the country again if asked, but insisted it was not a personal priority.
The Cayman Islands Constitution Order of 2009 sets out a clear process for the selection of a premier following an election.
If either the Progressives or the UDP gains a majority they will have the right to select the premier and inform the governor of their recommendation.
There is a subtle distinction between the natural assumption that this would mean the party leader – either McKeeva Bush or Alden McLaughlin – would automatically be premier and the wording of the constitution, which allows for some flexibility.
Section 49 (2) of the constitution order states: “Where a political party gains a majority of the seats of elected members of the Legislative Assembly, the governor shall appoint as premier the elected member of the assembly recommended by a majority of the elected members who are members of that party.”
Suzanne Bothwell, who was director of the Constitutional Review Secretariat, said the phrasing of the clause allowed room for political manoeuvring or the eventuality that a party could get a majority without its leader being elected.
In that scenario, opposition legislators would have no say in the leadership and it would come down to the choice of the winning party.
In the case of a coalition government, the constitution specifies that all elected members would have a vote in a leadership ballot to be held in the Legislative Assembly.
“The governor shall appoint as premier the elected member who obtains the majority of the votes of the elected members.”