Analysis: Who ‘won’ the election?

The last few days following the election have seen claims across the political divide that the results were either a vote confirming the government and expressing a desire for continuity or a vote for independents and the need for change.

Both arguments have merit, but neither is entirely correct, as is evidenced by the current struggle of each side to form a majority.

The Progressives have a point in that all seven government members retained their seats. Health Minister Dwayne Seymour, who was part of their alliance, also convincingly won his bid for re-election.

While the party might point to these figures as a sign of national confidence in their front bench, the reality is that eight people cannot form a government.

Neither the Progressives nor the wider Progressives Alliance can claim to have ‘won the election’. That alliance comprised four candidates who failed to win seats – Frank Cornwall, Progressives; Alva Suckoo, independent; Austin Harris, independent; and Vincent Frederick, independent.

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That does not mean, under the Westminster system, that they are not perfectly entitled to try to build a new coalition with any elected independents who are willing to work with them.

On the other hand, Wayne Panton, who leads the newly formed PACT team, claims the election of 12 independent candidates shows “the will of the people” was an independent-led government.

This may be true but the election of independent candidates itself is not conclusive evidence of that.

There were 42 independent candidates running in this election, some of them openly aligned with the government. Collectively, they represented a wide disparity of views, and the winning combination cannot automatically be presented as a de facto party that should automatically form the government.

An independent or non-partisan politician is simply not affiliated with any political party.

In Cayman, where only one political party remains, running as an independent is the default option for anyone who is not a member of the Progressives.

There can be many reasons why someone may run for office as an independent: They may not share the views of the party’s political platform, other party candidates may have been preferred in the district or there might be personal animosity between them and other party members.

Equally, as seems to have been the case for some candidates in this election, they may have wanted to see who wins before making a final decision on where their allegiances lie.

Whatever the reasons, the label ‘independent’ in and of itself gives very little indication as to the political convictions of a candidate.

It certainly does not mean that he or she is automatically affiliated with a party or group of independents.

It is no more likely that in the 2021 election Cayman’s voters have opted for a cohesive group of 12 independents than that they have voted for 12 parties of one, each made up of an individual candidate.

The reality is somewhere in the middle with some independent candidates more closely aligned than others.

Pre-election alliances

It was quite clear, in the run-up to the election, that a core group of independents, including winning candidates Wayne Panton, Heather Bodden, Chris Saunders, Kenneth Bryan and Bernie Bush, were willing to work together and potentially with others to form an alternate government to the Progressives-led mix.

Others left their options open and it was entirely predictable that the result on 14 April would not be definitive.

That is what has transpired and, five days after the election, neither side has more than nine representatives.

The Progressives argue that 12 independent candidates were only elected because in multiple districts the electorate only had independents to choose from.

Instead, they say that in many of those districts they identified independents with whom they would be prepared to form a government.

While in some districts the Progressives will have been reluctant to run a party candidate against a former government member, like challenging Harris in Prospect, for example, it seems likely they would have fielded more candidates in other districts, if they felt they had a chance of winning.

Did people vote for change?

Many of those actively advocating against the Progressives on social media and in public are adamant that the Cayman people want change.

Some of the most vocal are members of the group that fought a bitter battle against the Progressives government over the proposed cruise berthing facility.

While they were successful, with the port project abandoned indefinitely, political candidates that were members of the group fared less well in the election.

The most prominent one, Johann Moxam, lost to government minister Joey Hew. His running mate, Alric Lindsay, lost to government member Barbara Conolly, and Sammy Jackson, another candidate that was part of that ‘team’, lost a close race against outgoing Premier Alden McLaughlin.

If some combination of those three had got through, the argument that this was a clear national vote for a new direction might carry more weight and there would be an easier path to government for the independent group.

Additionally, the perception of Panton as an environmentalist is a fair one. He was the driving force behind the National Conservation Law. Government’s apparent willingness to walk back some of the provisions of that legislation, along with their failure to deal with the McKeeva Bush situation, was cited as a key reason for his departure from the party.

It is not clear, however, that every winning independent was elected on that basis.

There is no clear ideological divide among those vying for government in Cayman and there are numerous legislators who have switched sides over the years.

In that context, the vilification of newly elected members who are prevaricating over which alliance to join seems harsh.

Despite the uncertainty and the incendiary atmosphere that surrounds the talks taking place, this is actually an entirely normal and expected part of the process. When there is no clear group that campaigns on a shared platform and wins a majority in Parliament, then a coalition government must be formed.

Whether that is a coalition entirely of independents, a Progressives-led alliance or a more even mix of the two, remains to be seen. We can only pray that it is resolved swiftly and peacefully.

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