If recent experience is anything to go by, the General Election on July 18 will be close. Here are five things to watch for in the run-up to the vote:
Populism versus Open Society: Political pundits have been debating how politics in the Western world has been shifting from a classic Left-Right divide to a clash between populists, who generally favour closing their countries against outside influences, and globalists, who favour more open societies — both in terms of trade and immigration.
Bermuda has always been more protectionist than other Western countries, and it is not hard to find similarities between the Progressive Labour Party and populists such as Donald Trump’s America First movement and the United Kingdom Independence Party. All rely on a nationalist, anti-immigrant viewpoint, which feeds on people’s fears of displacement. By contrast, the One Bermuda Alliance leans more to the neoliberal, globalising view of the world, which held sway until the crash of 2008, and reflects the views of people such as new French President Emmanuel Macron or President Barack Obama.
To be sure, there are big differences. The PLP will reject any comparisons to the thinly veiled racism of Trump and Ukip. And tucked away in its platform is a promise to ease 60:40 company ownership rules. The OBA is tougher on immigration than it is given credit for and has introduced more progressive taxation policies than might be expected from a supposedly centre-right party. But the comparisons are broadly valid and reflect how both parties have been moving away from traditional labels.
It’s the economy, stupid: The OBA was elected on its promise to turn around the slumping economy in 2012. While the economy is now in recovery, the question for voters is whether enough has been done quickly enough. The OBA is asking for more time to finish the job, while actively reminding people how bad things were in 2012 under the PLP. The PLP has been arguing that it is too little, too late and has mainly benefited people who already had money.
The OBA can point to solid accomplishments in the past 18 months, which are finally generating jobs. The economy began to grow in constant prices in 2015, but the America’s Cup and construction at Caroline Bay, the St Regis and the airport all generated actual jobs in 2016 and 2017. With tourism improving and international business relatively stable, the OBA can run on its record. The PLP has argued that in the “Two Bermudas” — a common populist theme — poorer Bermudians are not benefiting from the growth, and that jobs growth has been slow and uneven.
To borrow the Ronald Reagan question from his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, this election may be decided by whether people feel better off than they did five years ago.
Independents: Despite a lot of talk, only two candidates of real substance are running. They have an uphill climb; the only independent elected to Parliament since party politics began was Stuart Hayward in 1989, and third parties have won only three seats in almost 50 years.
Paula Cox, the former premier and PLP doyenne, is fighting her former party’s establishment in her old seat of Devonshire North West, a seat the PLP badly wants back. The beneficiary is likely to be OBA incumbent Glen Smith, who will be hoping that Cox will split the PLP vote with Wayne Caines.
The other serious independent is former OBA chairman Thad Hollis, who is running against PLP incumbent and former United Bermuda Party leader Wayne Furbert, and OBA newcomer Simone Barton in Hamilton West. Hollis is likely to be a spoiler, but who will he hurt most? He may take more votes away from Barton in a seat where Furbert had a sizeable majority in 2012, but Hamilton Parish voters are notoriously fickle.
New leaders: Both major parties have experienced changes of leadership since 2012. The OBA will be trying to make Michael Dunkley Bermuda’s first elected white premier since 1980, while the PLP is counting on David Burt to bring it back to power after he forced Marc Bean out last year. Dunkley has a good record in government, having been national security minister and premier, but his management of the Pathways to Status issue may hurt him. Burt may still be tainted by his time as junior finance minister and his alternative fact claims that the economy was in good shape in 2012.
Dunkley will also point to the success of the America’s Cup as the symbol of the OBA’s success, while Burt will argue that it did not help enough people.
In the end, the question will be whether Dunkley’s race will be held against him, while Burt’s tendency to spin almost anything may lead voters to question his integrity. His choice of Caines over Cox, allegedly in defiance of custom and practice, may be seen as signalling a return to the PLP’s casual approach to rules and regulations, as recorded in several Auditor-General’s reports.
Race: Race is the subtext to almost all politics in Bermuda, and will play a part in the election. Expect some sort of racial dispute at some point. It is very difficult to know what impact it has on elections, but it will happen, whether overtly or through some kind of coded language.
Tomorrow: Three things to watch on Election Day
• Bill Zuill is a former Editor of The Royal Gazette, for whom he covered six general elections between 1989 and 2012. He is now executive director of the Bermuda National Trust
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