May 24, 2017 might have been Cayman’s “independents’ day,” but by May 29 a group of independent candidates – with a couple of exceptions – found themselves on the outside looking in at a second term for Premier Alden McLaughlin and his Progressives-led coalition.
This year’s general election brought major change to Cayman Islands democracy, installing a “one man, one vote” process which scrubbed the territory’s previous multi-member constituency electoral system, exchanging it for 19 single-member voting districts.
That system was largely credited for the election of nine independent members of the Legislative Assembly, leaving the islands uncertain the day after the election who would control the next government.
The disparate group of independents was ultimately unable, after a long weekend of bargaining (between May 26 and May 28) to attain the necessary numbers for leadership. Instead, a rather surprising coalition of seven Progressives party candidates led by Mr. McLaughlin, three Cayman Democratic Party candidates led by Mr. McLaughlin’s political arch-nemesis, West Bay MLA McKeeva Bush, and three independent MLAs from three different districts formed a “government of national unity.”
Mr. Bush, the longest-serving current member of the Cayman Islands legislature, confirmed the agreement at an impromptu press conference outside the Government Administration Building on May 29: “I have committed to support Mr. McLaughlin, the premier … we are here for the betterment of our people. I feel this is the best way for us to get those things that our people are demanding.”
Getting to that announcement took some effort.
After intense behind-the-scenes negotiations on May 25, it was initially rumored that Mr. Bush had agreed to form a coalition among the independent elected members [minus West Bay South’s Tara Rivers], with East End MLA Arden McLean serving as premier. However, on Friday, May 26, at around 4 p.m., Mr. Bush and Mr. McLaughlin put pen to paper on a coalition between the Progressives and the CDP.
Just a few hours later on Friday, Mr. Bush, seemingly at the request of Dr. Steve Tomlinson – who had supported a number of candidates during the election – met with the independents group again, this time agreeing to form a coalition with eight independents (not including Ms. Rivers) and the three CDP candidates, making Mr. Bush the premier. Rumors of this agreement began to circulate the islands around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. that Friday.
Mr. McLaughlin, caught off-guard by the new deal, told the Cayman Compass this version of a government coalition was a “train wreck” and probably wouldn’t last too long.
He was correct. By midday, Saturday, May 27, it was obvious certain factions among the independents would not support Mr. Bush as the territory’s leader. Other sidebar negotiations occurred that weekend, but by Monday, the original Progressives-CDP deal was confirmed. The coalition agreement included Prospect MLA Austin Harris, an independent, who told the Compass why he ultimately decided to go to the government backbench.
“The independents had, on two separate occasions, the opportunity to form the government and they allowed it, for a variety of reasons, to slip,” Mr. Harris said. “I did not believe that opportunity would come a third time.”
Although Mr. Bush spoke positively about the new government coalition at the time, documents have since surfaced which indicate CDP party officials were not best pleased with the arrangement, viewing it as the “nuclear option.”
“The nuclear option, if forced, would result in the CDP joining with the PPM [Progressives] to form a government in the national interest,” according to the documents obtained by the Compass.
Heading into late 2017, the national unity government coalition was still intact. Although rumors persisted about pending changes to the coalition makeup, none had occurred by year end.