Sniffing rain? No, that’s election fever in the air
The retirement of veteran Opposition MP Trevor Moniz has forced a by-election in the constituency of Smith's West. Former senator Vic Ball is running for the One Bermuda Alliance, while an announcement from the governing Progressive Labour Party is expected shortly.
Craig Cannonier, the Opposition leader, has predicted further retirements will come from both sides of the House, so more by-elections loom.
Rumours of an early General Election are also swirling and if one is announced, it may well subsume any by-elections. If not, they could well serve as a dress rehearsal for a General Election before the end of the year.
With regard to Mr Moniz, it is not a great surprise that he will be departing after 27 years of parliamentary service; apart from Dennis Lister, the Speaker of the House, few MPs have served longer.
Very much a maverick in his early — and middle — days, Mr Moniz proved to be a dedicated Cabinet minister in the OBA government between December 2012 and July 2017 and an effective works minister and Attorney-General. While his civil action against Ewart Brown failed in court, he should not be faulted for his efforts to expose what he perceived as public wrongdoing by the former premier.
Now the OBA has put up Mr Ball to run in a constituency that saw Mr Moniz's majority cut quite dramatically in the Progressive Labour Party landslide of 2017. How Mr Ball performs will be a test of the state of the parties in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.
Some caution is necessary. By-elections are not entirely reliable indicators of General Election performances, largely because typically low turnouts can be misleading, and because often very little is at stake — the PLP will still be the government after the vote, regardless of the result. It also depends on how much effort each party puts in to the vote.
Still, that the OBA lost one of two by-elections two years ago and is already down to 11 seats means there is intense pressure to retain this one. For the PLP, this is a test to see if it can maintain or increase its majority in a General Election. A good result in Smith's West — which does not necessarily mean winning the seat, but simply further reducing the majority — would encourage David Burt to take his party to the polls to effectively seek to extend its term.
Opinion on the Premier calling an early poll will be divided. Mr Burt was among those who felt Paula Cox missed a similar golden opportunity in early 2011 when the Opposition was divided between the old United Bermuda Party and the fledgeling Bermuda Democratic Alliance. The Warwick South Central by-election, when the PLP maintained its majority and the two opposition parties split their vote, suggested that an election called then would have led to a drubbing along the lines of the Sir John Swan landslide of 1985.
But Ms Cox balked and by the time she did go to the polls in 2012, she faced an energised OBA, lost the election and her seat for good measure.
Mr Burt will be keen to avoid making the same mistake.
He will know also that while the Government has earned high marks for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the island faces the most difficult economic prospects it has had since the war. Indeed, the challenges make the last recession, which cost the PLP power, look relatively mild — record unemployment, a reeling tourism industry by air and sea, and galloping budget deficits could lead to massive suffering.
Given that reality, most pragmatic politicians would want to secure a majority now to be able to get through the economic pain in the early part of a five-year term and then hope not to have to go back to the voters until the economy had recovered.
The weakness of the OBA, which has not distinguished itself in opposition, must also present a massive temptation for the Premier. There is a risk that its performance may improve if left alone; certainly, it can't get much worse.
But there are certain elements that predicate against an election.
The first is the sheer logistical problem of holding an election amid the Covid-19 crisis. While Bermuda has contained the virus, it has done so through effective social-distancing, which is the antithesis of what happens in a typical General Election.
The reality is that a new outbreak could occur at any time, and in the absence of any mechanism for mail-in or electronic elections, the PLP faces the same arguments that are roiling the United States. But in Bermuda's case, this is exacerbated by an election now being unnecessary since the PLP has two years of its term left.
By the same token, the PLP might well be accused of trying to benefit from tragedy — taking credit for its handling of the crisis also means reminding people that nine people died from it and many more were seriously ill. And there is still no vaccine.
Other practical concerns also arise. It has been an article of faith since the 1998 General Election that Bermuda's university students should be able to vote, which means that it must be held in the summer or Christmas holidays when they are on the island.
Some students are already returning to universities, which are starting their years early because of Covid-19. Others may remain here and undertake distance-learning, but calling an election now would mean depriving some of the vote, especially given the stringent requirements for travelling to Bermuda and back.
Mr Burt would also leave himself open to the accusation that he is holding the election only for political gain. In part because of the Covid-19 crisis, the two key reforms his government has promised — in health and education — remain incomplete, and it is difficult to see them being finished before the end of the year.
Mr Burt has put great emphasis on fulfilling the PLP's 2017 election promises. Going to the polls now would show this has not been done. It would also put the PLP's management of the economy since 2017 under the microscope.
As discussed previously in this space, the record is not good. Before the Covid-19 crisis, the economy was essentially flat and Mr Burt's financial technology initiative — the jewel in the crown of the 2017 platform — had underperformed, to put it mildly.
Since then, all efforts to produce a balanced budget and to curb Bermuda's borrowing have been shattered. In the meantime, some of Bermuda's competitors, notably the Cayman Islands, were flourishing before Covid-19 and their finances were therefore in better shape to handle the crisis.
There is also some pressure within the PLP to include independence as a plank in a new manifesto. But the idea of embarking on an independence campaign while in the midst of the crisis and a severe recession will seem to define madness to many voters.
Given these complexities, Mr Burt may wish to pause before going to the polls. It would make more sense to wait for the crisis to further ease, and with any luck for a vaccine or life-saving therapy to be developed, and to then go to the voters for a new mandate.