Wayne Panton and Chris Saunders have emerged as potential leaders of a coalition of independent candidates if government is defeated at the polls next week.
Panton, who is running in a team with Osbourne Bodden and Heather Bodden, has broad support among the variety of groups and partnerships that are forming among the 38 genuine independents in the race.
Saunders, meanwhile, has been named by several sources as the de facto leader of a coalition of newer candidates, including Alric Lindsay and Johann Moxam.
George Town central MLA Kenneth Bryan has also thrown his weight behind Moxam and Panton in their respective campaigns.
It is understood that discussions are taking place behind the scenes that could see those two groups merge under one banner, with Panton tipped as the most likely leader, if he is elected in Newlands.
Asked about the leadership this week, the former environment and financial services minister acknowledged there had “been discussions along those lines”.
He said it was not something he was specifically campaigning for, however, and his primary focus right now is on winning back the seat he lost by just 15 votes to Alva Suckoo in the last election.
North Side incumbent and sole member of his People’s Party, Ezzard Miller, still harbours leadership hopes. He told the Compass on Nomination Day that he would look to lead a coalition of independents if enough like-minded people were elected.
Former premier McKeeva Bush could still have a significant role to play, despite the fact that multiple candidates have publicly said they will not work with him following his assault conviction.
Realistically, Bush’s chances of getting support for leadership appear slim, though if he and his West Bay team are victorious, he could yet emerge as the kingmaker in the post-election discussions.
Bush, who is running on a team with Rolston Anglin and Captain Eugene Ebanks in West Bay, said anyone looking to form a government may well need to talk to him and his running mates.
He said he would be willing and ready to serve in any position.
Most of the candidates who spoke to the Compass acknowledged that the election is difficult to predict with multiple races that are too close to call across the 19 constituencies.
The uncertainty is complicating leadership discussions, with few of the contenders for the premiership running in what could be described as safe seats.
With the Progressives and their alliance partners collectively running 12 candidates, there is little margin for error in the race to get the 10 members of Parliament needed to form a government.
Roy McTaggart, the new leader of the party, has not publicly contemplated the idea of a coalition government, expressing optimism that his team will “get to 10”.
“I am presenting to the country a team of candidates comprising Progressives and what we have termed alliance members,” he said.
“At the moment, we are 12. If we are successful at the polls, we can form a government.”
Several leading members of the Progressives, including current Premier Alden McLaughlin, have expressed confidence that they will get further alliance partners to join their ticket before Wednesday’s election.
A key theme of their rallies has been that they are the only group with a clear leader and a coherent plan to form a government.
Panton has broad support
Independent candidates reject that characterisation and numerous partnerships are emerging among the different groups.
Panton told the Compass he is publicly backing George Town incumbent Kenneth Bryan as well as his Bodden Town running mates. He said there were several other candidates that he was supporting and with whom he felt he could form a government.
He acknowledged he had been approached by various groups about the leadership.
“A lot of people have spoken to me along those lines,” he said.
“I have not campaigned on that basis. I will do what the country thinks it is best for me to do. I am not necessarily campaigning for it.”
Panton said it was difficult for anything to be set in stone before election night.
“There is a vote to be had and none of us can presuppose what the results will be,” he said.
He does believe, however, that the 19 winners will be able to quickly come to an agreement after 14 April.
“I am confident we will see a group of people elected that will be in a position to form a decent coalition government,” he said.
Panton did not rule out the possibility of working with some members of the Progressives in a coalition, depending on the results.
“Anything is on the table provided that… from my perspective, it is in the best interests of the country overall.”
Saunders a contender
Saunders, the independent MP for Bodden Town West, has appeared at rallies alongside a handful of new candidates including Moxam and Lindsay.
He said a lot of discussions were taking place among different groups and he is confident that the country wants an independent-led government.
“The independents have been meeting and we have been talking and we are aligned on many issues,” he said.
Saunders added that he believes the days of traditional adversarial party politics are over in Cayman.
He said, “We are looking for people willing to build consensus and to work together.”
Moxam confirmed a core group of independents, including himself, Sammy Jackson, Lindsay, Bernie Bush and Saunders, are supporting each other.
It is understood that Saunders, who has been a legislator for four years, is the likely leader among that group.
Moxam, who is challenging Joey Hew in George Town North, said at least four other candidates are expected to announce they are also part of what he described as the “coalition of the willing” within the next week.
He believes others could come on board before or after the election. Moxam did not rule out a partnership with Panton and his group, though nothing has been agreed as yet.
Kenneth Bryan has also thrown his support behind Moxam and could be a bridge between the two teams.
Moxam said whoever was nominated as leader would need to fit with the group’s core values of accountability, transparency, integrity and honesty.
“We are confident that we have a good chance of forming the majority within the next coalition government,” he said.
“The reality is that after the people have voted and decided who they want to be their representatives, we all understand there will need to be another assessment and a discussion on the way forward.
“What we want is to be part of the best possible government that will work in the best interests of the majority of the people of the Cayman Islands.”
McKeeva Bush could still play a role
McKeeva Bush said there had been a lot of “foolishness and hypocrisy” in the run up to the election. He said he had been made a “scapegoat” by his political opponents over his conviction and suggested there were plenty of others in the race who had been involved in “scandals” over the years.
He said the comments about him were motivated by a desire to eliminate a political rival rather than any moral reasons.
He added that it was presumptuous for anyone to rule out working with him or anyone else.
“You have to work with whoever is elected. That is a fact,” he said.
Bush believes the race to lead the country is wide open.
“Right now, there is no telling who is going to be premier,” he added.
He did not rule himself out for leadership, saying he would do whatever job necessary in the best interests of the jurisdiction.
If he is elected, along with his West Bay running mates Ebanks and Anglin, he hopes to be part of the government.
“We [the West Bay trio] have as much chance as anyone else to help form the government.
“They will have to work with us if we are elected. You can’t say you are not working with this one or that one. You have to wait and see who is elected.”
He said he would hold no grudges over what was said on the campaign trail and, if elected, would be willing to talk to anyone about forming a government.
“Whatever I am called on to do, I will do it, whether it is a backbencher, minister, parliamentary secretary or Speaker, I won’t shirk my responsibilities.”
Bryan: Multiple good options for leadership
Bryan, the independent legislator for George Town Central, said he was open to working with anyone that is prepared to prioritise core issues including cost-of-living, affordable housing and a safe and measured approach to the management of COVID-19.
He said there were plenty of good options for leadership on either side and urged whomever is victorious on 14 April to take a mature approach to coalition building.
“I think there is at least another four or five people that could be premier of this country. Some of them are even on the Progressives’ side.”
He said he would back the “best person for the job in the best interests of the country”.
He expects there to be serious discussions following the vote but said he was hopeful that the 19 members would come to a swift decision over the make-up of the new government.
“The good news is that there seems to be a good list of issues that many of the candidates agree on,” he said.
“There is a lot of consensus among all candidates, regardless of their allegiances and coalitions, on what the core issues to focus on are. I will follow someone who is willing to lead on those issues.”
McLean takes wait-and-see approach
Arden McLean, who was leader of the opposition in the last parliament, said he was campaigning to be part of the government but refused to be drawn on the leadership question.
“That is for the people to decide, not me,” he said. Asked if he would put his hat in the ring to be premier, if elected, when discussions take place after the vote, he said, “You just have to wait for that time.”