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Parties hit by turbulence ahead of election

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Authority undermined: Marc Bean (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

After a rough few months for Bermuda’s political parties, The Royal Gazette spoke to observers who assessed the state of play as the clock ticks towards the next General Election.

Plagued by infighting and in the midst of an uphill battle to maintain public confidence, some believe the One Bermuda Alliance needs a miracle to win the next General Election.

The problem for the Progressive Labour Party, others would argue, is that it needs one too — and for exactly the same reasons.

Certainly, neither party is going to have it easy as they approach the final round of a parliamentary term which must end, at the latest, by May 2018.

In the red corner, the OBA has been rocked by the resignation of former tourism minister Shawn Crockwell, with Mark Pettingill threatening to quit and a string of other MPs said to have major issues with the direction of the party.

In the green corner, PLP leader Marc Bean has seen his authority severely undermined by colleagues, with seven members of his Shadow Cabinet resigning over his leadership style and rumours of a takeover bid never far from the surface during the past few months.

According to four commentators who shared their thoughts on Bermuda’s political landscape with The Royal Gazette and generally pitched the PLP as favourites to return to power, the similarities do not end there.

The OBA has a trust deficit, our observers said, after so far failing to come good on its promise to yield 2,000 jobs, producing immigration policies that have infuriated many, and failing to shake off its reputation as a rebirth of the supposedly elitist United Bermuda Party.

Yet, neither the PLP’s much-criticised record on the economy, nor the accusations it faced over good governance during its 14 years in power, have exactly been forgotten by the voting public.

Charles Jeffers, the former National Liberal Party leader, was heavily critical of both.

“Both parties are taking a bath of some sort right now,” he said.

Sharing his thoughts on how the months ahead may pan out, Mr Jeffers said that regardless of potentially game-changing economic projects such as the construction of hotels, the airport redevelopment and the America’s Cup, one of the OBA’s most pressing tasks is to keep its own MPs happy.

He said the party is poised on disaster, adding: “Leah Scott has not been a happy camper. Nor has Sylvan Richards, who disagreed with his party on same-sex issues. How many will stay around for another election?”

But he noted Mr Bean faces a similar problem within the PLP, saying some members “feel that they can’t go the election under the present leader”.

Phil Perinchief, a former PLP Attorney-General who ran as an Independent MP in the last election, said that while the Opposition’s public leadership struggles had been hugely damaging, the party had no choice at such a late stage but to stick with Mr Bean, in spite of his “reputational and present health frailties”.

He said a PLP victory remained a foregone conclusion among black voters, as the priority for Opposition supporters would be to get the party back into the Government, then set to cleaning out the dead wood.

“A show of unity, strength, maturity, experience and sustained vision will be enough to see the PLP successfully through the next election,” Mr Perinchief said.

“The real work begins thereafter. The present perception of a bickering, backstabbing, self-interested, insular and egocentric group of immature individuals is making an otherwise fairly easy job of ‘seeing the OBA off’ more difficult than it need be.”

Mr Perinchief warned that “knives will be out” for Mr Bean once the election dust settles, adding: “Brutus will have his day.”

Khalid Wasi, a frequent political contributor to this newspaper, said that Mr Bean, with his “Donald Trump style of telling it like he sees it”, was honest to a flaw.

But Mr Wasi argued the embattled leader could improve the PLP’s chances by orchestrating his own departure.

“They may have to do as the OBA did, by bringing in new leadership via a safe seat,” he said.

Either way, Mr Wasi questioned whether the PLP could win back a support base that, in the last election, had lost confidence over debt, corruption allegations and a sense that Paula Cox, the former premier, had lost control.

He said the PLP must clear the atmosphere about its former record, and assure voters there would be no going back, possibly by getting rid of former ministers linked to accusations of corruption — whether or not proof existed.

Guilden Gilbert, another political observer, said that David Burt, the Shadow Minister of Finance who has been acting leader since Mr Bean was taken ill in March, has done a good job of focusing on the numbers rather than “simply throwing out party rhetoric”.

But he said of the leadership issue: “It cannot allow this to drag on for too much longer otherwise there could be an irreversible split in the party. Maybe not a physical split, but it will definitely be difficult to create a sense of comfort for voters that the PLP is ready to take the seat of Government.

“The party appears to be in disarray and I think many currently have very little comfort in the PLP.”

According to Mr Perinchief, such problems are minor compared with those faced by the OBA; when asked what the party needed to retain the Government, he replied: “A miracle.”

He said the alliance faces an uphill battle in overcoming a “trust deficit” reputation made worse by “the immigration debacle and the fracas on the Hill”.

Mr Perinchief said the America’s Cup, and what blacks see as “the seeming success of white business island-wide”, contrasts to the receding fortunes of blacks. He said this “only strengthens the perception in black people’s minds that the OBA is truly a metamorphosis and successor of the United Bermuda Party”.

“A year may not be enough to cast off that negative perception,” Mr Perinchief said.

“It takes a swing of about 12 per cent to 14 per cent of the black vote to determine which party wins the next election.”

Mr Wasi said the OBA had failed in its promise to be something new — and while it halted the sliding economy, he said its own actions have stopped it from moving ahead.

He pointed to the Government being “embroiled in litigation” and perceived as running counter to the economic aims of the “beleaguered black population”.

“They have been rebranded as the UBP, as many of the centrist or left-leaning members have been totally marginalised, such as Thad Hollis, the former chairman,” Mr Wasi said.

Mr Jeffers said the 2,000 jobs’ promise could come back to haunt the OBA.

“A government doesn’t create jobs, they create the climate for jobs,” he said.

“They have to make good on their promises. If not, give the reasons why not.”

He said the OBA must at least ensure genuine progress on the new hotel in St George’s and the airport.

“I don’t know what more they can do for the America’s Cup at this stage,” he said. “The Opposition is saying very little about it. It looks like it’s going to be a success.”

Mr Gilbert said the OBA had failed on its economic pledges.

“Not only have they been unable to meet these promises, they have never presented a blueprint as to how they will fulfil the promises,” Mr Gilbert said.

He said the OBA was pinning its hopes on too many ideas that do not guarantee success.

While he said the America’s Cup may be good for Bermuda, Mr Gilbert argued there will be no economic trickle down. He said that people may find work building the St George’s and Morgan’s Point hotels, but that constructions jobs are essentially temporary, and that after completion “the guys will again be out of work”.

He also questioned whether jobs in hotels would be so attractive to Bermudians because the island is still struggling to attract large numbers of tourists.

Further, Mr Gilbert described the airport as a very unpopular development, explaining: “The argument is in the secrecy behind this development and the numbers, in my view, do not add up.”

He said the 250,000-square feet design represents a “huge overbuild” for the 750,000 passengers that pass through the airport every year.

Asking whether the size of the project was simply based on a minimum investment threshold involving the overseas investors, Mr Gilbert said: “This is a question that has been asked, but there has been no response to it.”

For all the OBA’s shortcomings, however, he warned the PLP must do more than just present itself as an alternative.

“This election, the electorate will not accept fluff,” he said. “They want to know specifics of what a PLP government will do and how it will accomplish promises made.

“I do believe many within the electorate feel some voters’ remorse and they feel they were hoodwinked by the unfulfilled OBA promises.

“However, this will not give the PLP the seat of Government.”

Trust deficit: Michael Dunkley (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)