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Parties, Independents, Coalitions and the Need for a Strong Opposition

Education 17 Mar, 2021 Follow News

Dr. Livingston Smith is a Professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He is also Director of the CXC Education Volunteer programme

With elections closing in and clarity on the candidates who have put themselves forward for election, there is little doubt as to the likelihood of a PPM-led coalition government. This is so as the PPM is the most obviously organized political entity. One must also bear in mind that in the last election the concoction of independent candidates was unable to stitch together an effective coalition to form a government.

One notices that persons running as independents understand the need for collaboration and, depending on political outcomes, are indicating willingness to work with the main bloc of winning candidates once this known. This election is likely to remove the political shine off the idea of independents as a credible political framework, but the fact is that political parties, even with single-member constituencies, have not, so far, become the only game in town. The other important issue that must be factored into the discussion is the critical need for a strong opposition, whatever the outcome.

Readers will know that Cayman’s first political party, the Cayman Vanguard Progressive Party, duly registered on August 8, 1958, contested elections in that same year and then perished after failing to win a single seat. It survived for little under a year. Cayman’s second political party, the National Democratic Party, formed by Ormond Panton, seemed to have had all the credentials for sustainability and permanence, but by the 1965 election was on a route to extinction.

The Christian Democratic Party was the island’s third and when it engaged in election contests with the National Democratic Party, presented the possibility of a vibrant two-party democracy. However, a confluence of circumstances and personality issues made this impossible. When Panton lost by four votes in the 1965 election with only one NDP candidate, Warren Conolly, in East End winning, the first chapter in Cayman’s first real attempt at party politics came to a slow but certain close.

Thereafter, up until 2000, Cayman’s politics was organized around teams and independent candidates. The formation of the United Democratic Party in 2001 and the PPM in 2002 was another attempt. The UDP, turned Cayman Democratic Party, has since died. Ezzard Miller’s 2019 Cayman Islands People’s Party has not taken off.

Properly conceived and led, there are several advantages to political parties. Political parties are principally political organizations which have as their main objective control of the machinery of government. They must be concerned with the broad agenda of issues facing the societies in which they operate and the larger global environment which have direct and indirect bearing on local realities. They work not just to influence policy but ultimately to have control of the government apparatus to oversee the formulation and execution of policies.

In terms of functions, they provide opportunities for people with similar political philosophies and ideas to meet, organize and campaign in order to place their members in Government, but if not, at least in Opposition. Globally, political parties are the main institutions which provide candidates for elections and by extension the nation’s political leaders. Political parties recruit and nominate candidates who the leaders think will win in elections. They help their candidates to win elections and while not in office they monitor the actions of office holders.

A distinguishing feature of a political party is desire for permanence. In this respect the Teams which dominated the local political scene prior to formation of the UDP and PPM, were not political parties. Those who form political parties usually do so with a desire that they become a permanent part of their societies. That many disappear after at most two years does not mean that that was the intention.

Because political parties are characterized by an intention to be permanent, there is need for a constitution, formal constituency organization, a system of voting to change party leaders and so on. Political parties are thus much more formal organizations. As political parties are permanent political organizations, they strive to have an organizational structure that can facilitate the recruitment of members, develop policy, raise campaign funds to educate the electorate about campaign issues, and other such activities. They develop views, positions and policies and communicate these to the electorate not only but especially during election campaigns.

In addition, because political parties are permanent organizations, the voting and public know way beforehand what they are getting. They know that that the party in Opposition or simply not in government, is striving to do so. The public knows beforehand that if the leader of the party in Opposition were to win the election, he or she will be leading the country. There are no surprises with political parties as persons contesting are likely to be in the public domain for some time.

Whatever the eventual outcome of this election, the role of an effective opposition must not be underestimated. The Opposition has a special place in the political process in the Westminster System.

Even as it seeks to present itself as a worthy government in waiting, it does not oppose for the sake of opposition, but by its possession of vision and understanding, tackles the concerns that citizens have. A main role of an Opposition is to be in constant pursuit of evidence not only of government misspending of funds but of wider examples of dishonesty and arbitrary behaviour. The Opposition probes for information and prods the government to act on behalf of certain interests, opinions, and needs in society.

It also serves as a brake on government haste, to ensures that all legislation receives the ‘due process’ of parliamentary deliberation, and to see that diverse and opposing points of views have a chance to be aired and defended.

The party, or team, or bloc of independent candidates, in Opposition, though not in government, knows that an important function of an Opposition is also to consistently critique Government and to present alternative positions and possibilities in a consistent, organized, and credible way that demonstrates that the Opposition is thinking through current issues and is in touch with what is happening.

This is usually best done by a ‘Shadow Cabinet’ of persons appointed by the Leader of the Opposition to speak on specified portfolios. So, there is a Shadow Minister of Education, of Finance, of Tourism, or however, else the Leader of the Opposition might indicate he intends to call the various Ministries. Apart from providing cut and thrust in political life, the appointment of a Shadow Cabinet by a serious Opposition, is also a signal to the public as to who would likely be Minsters if the Opposition were to become Government.

The public can scrutinize way ahead of time what it desires and Opposition Spokespersons while providing to the public a ‘Government in Waiting’, also get useful experience critiquing, agreeing with, and proposing new policy directions that they would undertake so the public knows what the other policy options are likely to be taken if the party in Opposition were in Government. Hopefully, if they became Government, they should be able to ‘hit the ground running’ being to some extent already familiar with the issue and challenges in their respective portfolios.

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