By Ron Shillingford
Any year that holds general elections is an extremely significant one and when the Cayman Islands goes to the polls on May 24 many issues will weigh heavily on voters’ minds as they sign their ballot. The fact that this is the first time that the new system of one man, one vote is introduced gives it an added significance. The Progressives under Premier Alden McLaughlin are in power and consensus is that the new voting system will favour them, but McKeeva Bush, leader of the Opposition United Democratic Party, has huge swathes of popularity in Cayman and his decades in politics has made him some powerful allies. Employment, permanent residence, crime and Cayman main industries of the financial sector and tourism are the main issues affecting the average voter. How the election pans out depends on how well each party can convince the electorate that their way is best for the future of the Cayman Islands.
The Cayman Islands head for the polls on May 24 when only about half its residents will be eligible to vote, such is the make up of its population where expats are a huge demographic. Here’s a guide to some of the big issues set to dominate Cayman’s political arena during the coming months.
The issue of permanent residence status always weighs heavily on the minds of the indigenous population. At least hostility towards expats may well be waning as recent employment figures attest. Even in his New Year’s speech – an abridged version is printed in today’s paper – Premier Alden McLaughlin mentioned how much more Caymanians have found work recently and their increased percentage in the workforce. Moan as they might, Caymanians are definitely better off in the job market than previously and the trend looks set to increase.
Whether the Progressives (PPM) under Premier McLaughlin can hang onto power is up for debate. And there will be plenty of that in the next few months. The United Democratic Party under veteran leader McKeeva Bush are seeking to regain power. Mr. Bush has remained a powerful adversary in the four years since he lost the premiership and if the Progressives have not convinced the electorate that their lives have significantly improved and the future is rosier under them then Mr. Bush may well find himself in charge again.
These elections will be particularly interesting because Cayman used to have a complicated system of multiple member constituencies which allowed people to vote several times for a fixed number of MPs. However, that has been scrapped in favour of a simple system which gives each person only one vote. This election will be the first contested under this system.
The Progressives are seen as having an advantage under the one man, one vote system, but the issue of the huge backlog of granting permanent residence applications is a major factor over whether Mr. McLaughlin remains premier. Around 800 people are languishing on the PR waiting list, many for well over a year. Some, who have been here for many years but never got round to submitting applications in the belief that their long-term residency meant they were assured of avoiding expensive and extensive red tape, are now worried. Hard-working, law-abiding citizens who happen to have been born elsewhere deserve to be told where their future lies. Living in limbo indefinitely is a stressful situation. It affects all kinds of major decisions including buying a property in Cayman, career paths and even whether to have children and bring them up here.
Although crime is a relatively small problem in Cayman, this is one issue that continues to worry residents as they go about their daily lives. Drug crime, burglaries and robberies are unfortunately elements of all societies and the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service does its best to tackle these problems. But the police are seen by many in the general public as being ineffective in curbing gun and serious crime incidents.
Indeed, there were two shootings on Boxing Day, in West Bay and George Town. Apparently gang related. Greater measures need to be taken to stop these incidents. Communities are suffering from the violence and bereaved families feel that they need better support from the police and government. The general public’s fear of being a victim of serious crime increases too.
Education is another hot topic in Cayman. Consensus is that successive governments have allowed too many students to pass through Cayman’s public schools system without holding teacher’s accountable for poor performances.
Children from expat families are not allowed to attend government schools which means that their parents must pay for expensive, albeit superior private education, leaving many of the Caymanians at government schools lagging behind from inadequate teaching. Parents, quite rightly so, want improved standards and will press for that even more so around election time.
Other issues sure to be on the agenda this year include speeding up the slow restructuring of the civil service to improve its efficiency and to make it more cost-effective, an overall revamp of operations at the Cayman Turtle Centre and how to maximise Cayman’s vital financial industry as well as whether building a berthing dock for cruise ships is worthwhile.