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It was the economy stupid

In the end, it was the economy, stupid.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that when an economy has been in contraction for three and probably four years, that the incumbent party in a general election is likely to lose.

Certainly that has been the case for one government after another since the advent of the great recession in 2008. Almost all have tumbled, victims of an unhappy electorate looking for solutions.

Only a few have survived. Canada, which succeeded in avoiding the worst of the recession, rewarded its minority conservative government with a majority. And the US economy had recovered enough to hand President Barack Obama a second term, although it did not hurt that he came to power just as the global economies were crashing and could not be held responsible for the bad financial behaviour and real estate bubbles that caused the global recession.

Governments that were in power before the recession and have failed to bring about a recovery are likely to be punished. And the Progressive Labour Party was, in an election which saw voters throw out the Premier, a former Premier and Cabinet Ministers as well.

It was thought that the election could be historic, and in the end it was. For just the second time in 44 years of universal adult suffrage, Bermudians turned a ruling party out of power. The United Bermuda Party ruled for 30 years; the PLP for 14. This may end up being a sign of political maturity, even if it took the worst recession in living memory to accomplish it.

Bermudians went into the general election having to make several judgments. The first was the degree to which Bermuda was responsible for its own economic problems and to what extent they were caused by the global recession. If they determined that Bermuda had some responsibility, they then had to to decide how much the Government’s own actions were to blame, or whether those actions had shielded Bermuda from even worse economic conditions.

What was not in doubt was that Bermuda’s economy was in its worst shape in living memory. Overall unemployment was at eight percent, while Bermudian unemployment was ten percent. Unemployment had hit the young hardest, with one in three young job seekers unable to find work. This group could prove to be crucial in an election, either by not voting or by voting for change.

For the first time in a decade, a majority of this group of 18 to 35-year-olds did not support the PLP, the only party many had ever known in government.

Aside from the economy, Bermuda had also been wounded by an upsurge in violent crime which had been fatal for many young men, had caused grievous injuries for many and sent others abroad because they were in fear of their lives. This unprecedented gang violence at first caught many in authority “flat footed”, as National Security Minister Wayne Perinchief admitted, but by the time the general election came, the police had become much more effective in arresting and prosecuting those responsible. Nonetheless, few would deny that a fresh outbreak of violence was always possible, and there were several murders in the months before the election.

If the economy and crime were the big issues facing the electorate, voters were also confronted with a dizzying series of changes on the political front as well.

Controversial and charismatic Premier Dr Ewart Brown bowed out of politics in October, 2010, and was replaced by Finance Minister Paula Cox, who brushed off challenges by former Cabinet Ministers Terry Lister and Dale Butler to become Premier. At first, she enjoyed strong popularity, and her promise of clean government was widely welcomed.

But the continued decline in the economy took its toll over the next two years, and infighting within the PLP, including the resignation of Deputy Premier Derrick Burgess, weakened her position further. Some members also fretted over her refusal to take advantage of the disarray in the Opposition and to call an election.

The United Bermuda Party, which had failed to make ground in the 2007 election and had then made a muddle of the uproar over Dr Brown’s bringing four Uighur Guantánamo Bay internees to the Island in 2009, had seen a split, with three MPs walking out to form the One Bermuda Alliance and two others, former leader Wayne Furbert and Darius Tucker, sitting as Independents.

Down to just nine members, the UBP took on the BDA in the Warwick South Central by-election called to find a successor as MP to Dr Brown in what was seen as a test of strength for the two Opposition parties. Although the UBP narrowly edged out the BDA, the split vote threw up the likelihood that both parties would be badly beaten in a general election.

As a result, MPs from both parties started to explore a way to merge. When UBP leader Kim Swan resisted the change, seven of the remaining nine MPs resigned from the UBP and joined the fledgling One Bermuda Alliance with the three BDA MPs under the interim leadership of veteran MP John Barritt.

Had Ms Cox chosen to call an election then, she might still have handed the new party a hefty defeat and gained a fresh five year term for the PLP. But for reasons that have never been fully explained, she did not, and as a result the OBA was able to take the time needed to form and to hold leadership elections in which BDA leader Craig Cannonier defeated UBP MP Bob Richards for the leadership and later succeeded Mr Barritt in Devonshire South Central.

While the economy continued to stumble, with frequent reports of business closures and job losses, Ms Cox held off on a summer 2012 election, setting the stage for the December, 2012 election.

After weeks of shadow campaigning and candidate rollouts, Ms Cox finally called the general election for December 17 after delivering the Throne Speech.

As expected, the economy was the main issue, and at first the PLP campaign struggled to get off the ground, and was especially marred by the departure of John Gibbons in St George’s West for personal reasons. Then it was revealed that a second PLP candidate, Makai Dickerson in Devonshire South Central, had been arrested for cannabis possession. Mr Dickerson eventually withdrew, but with two of the PLP’s so called “rising stars” out, the PLP campaign had stumbled early.

At the same time, the PLP had struggled to get traction from the so-called “secret report”, a consultant’s recommendation that the UBP split, and then re-form before a general election in a series of events which was close, although not identical to the actual formation of the OBA.

This report, first revealed two years ago, at first drew little attention, but when a version of the report was posted on a mysterious site called ubpleaks, the OBA said the report was a fabrication and the consultant threatened legal action.

When the actual report was revealed by this newspaper and ZBM, Mr Cannonier closed down a press conference and walked out. Although the report was not written by the UBP and was said to be unsolicited, a statement that former UBP Leader Michael Dunkley should have been less prominent in the 2007 campaign and “a handful of black surrogates” should have been used instead gave the PLP legs.

The OBA dropped its prominence and a series of PLP candidate rallies gained some momentum as the campaign came to a close, although the numbers never came close to those seen in the 2007 election and the attendees were notably older.

Polls conducted in the last weeks of the campaign gave the OBA a lead of between ten and 20 percentage points, but few political pundits were willing to predict a result.

That was largely because of the nature of Bermuda’s constituency boundaries, which were thought to give the PLP four or five more safe seats than the OBA. In addition, boundary changes since the 2007 election made it very difficult to determine the outcomes of some seats.

In the end, the boundary changes appeared to play mainly into the OBA’s favour. Ms Cox’s own defeat could be blamed in part on major changes in her constituency, as could Michael Dunkley’s victory over Patrice Minors.

Even yesterday morning, many PLP insiders were predicting that the party would hold between 20 and 22 seats, even if they lost the popular vote. It was inconceivable to them that the large majorities in many PLP seats could be overturned.

In fact, the PLP was fortunate that the defeat was not worse. Several MPs won by single or double digits in seats that were previously strongholds.

In part this was due to turnout, which was down from 2007, although not as much as some pundits feared.

And in fact this was still an achingly close election, and one of the tests for the OBA will be whether it can turn these election victories won in the worst of times and retain them when things improve.

Having been elected on the promise of improving the economy, the OBA will have to deliver on that. But it also has an obligation to prove that it is a new movement in politics and not simply a rebranded UBP. It will have to ensure that the benefits of economic recovery are shared between whites and blacks and between rich and poor.

The PLP was right that voters rejected the UBP in 1998 because it failed to accomplish this; the OBA needs to do better.

However, this election also proved that appeals to racial loyalty are not effective. The PLP attempted to make this election about race, especially in the last days, and voters seem to have rejected that in favour of an improved economy. Unemployment knows no bounds and even the anti-business rhetoric which infused the PLP campaign at the end failed to mobilise the PLP base and may even have backfired.

If 2007 was the first election where extensive use of the internet occurred, 2012 was the “social media” election, with a wide range of political messages and debates on Facebook, Twitter and the like. Both parties made heavy use of internet advertising and the PLP was ubiquitous on websites around the world at the end.

Again, it is not clear if the PLP’s attack advertising paid off on radio and television. The OBA car ad was criticised by the party’s own supporters for being juvenile.

One major criticism of the PLP campaign was its negativity. Far more effort was expended on attacking the OBA than on promoting the PLP’s own programme and this may have backfired when people were looking for answers and change. It was much more effective in 2007 when the economy was more buoyant.

For the PLP, it now finds itself without a leader and having had its confidence knocked. The PLP believes, with some reason, that it is the natural party of government, so to lose this election comes as more of a shock than might seem obvious to an outsider. Some soul searching will have to be done. But in the end, the PLP’s leadership genuinely seemed to be out of touch. Even in the last weeks of the campaign, it could not bring itself to concede that the economy was in as dire condition as it was, and its failure to take appropriate measures soon enough cost it power in the end.

Michael Dunkley gives a big thumbs up.

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Published December 18, 2012 at 8:00 am (Updated December 18, 2012 at 2:09 am)

It was the economy stupid

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