January 21, 2007 / 5:23 PM / 12 years ago

Bermuda opposition party hurt by charges of racism

HAMILTON (Reuters) - Bermuda’s new premier could call elections within the next few weeks or months in the wealthy island to take advantage of turmoil in the opposition party over allegations of internal racism.

Premier Ewart Brown of the ruling Progressive Labour Party has to call an election by the end of 2008 but could take advantage of disarray in the opposition United Bermuda Party by holding a ballot much earlier.

The UBP, which once held unassailable sway over the predominantly black British dependency, was rocked when its black chairwoman, Gwyneth Rawlins, stepped down last Wednesday to protest alleged manipulation and control of the party by Bermuda’s white elite.

Her resignation came just over a week after black legislator Jamahl Simmons also abandoned the UBP, saying a racist clique was trying to remove him from his Hamilton seat.

He said the party was stuck in the colonial past and was a forum where whites “can engage in threats, intimidation and economic terrorism against blacks with impunity.”

The UBP drew support from just 25 percent of likely voters in a November opinion poll while the PLP stood at nearly 40 percent.

The PLP won re-election in 2003 in a campaign that saw Brown warn Bermudians they risked voting their way “back onto the plantation” if they supported the UBP.

UBP party leader Wayne Furbert said the latest racism claims rang hollow, given that the anti-Simmons faction had been trying to replace him with another black. And a slew of black UBP politicians have also denied the allegations.

But the split led Maxwell Burgess, the UBP’s elder statesman, to call on Furbert to resign, saying the party was divided and ailing. Some former supporters have called for the UBP to disband.

Commentator and former newspaper editor Tom Vesey said for the UBP the election would be a “matter of being a credible survivor rather than an election winner.”

He said Brown would now likely call a snap election within the next three to four months to capitalise on the good fortune before it ran out; and also to get his own mandate after taking over as the country’s leader in October after ousting incumbent Alex Scott.

RACE FACTOR

Race has long been an abiding factor in elections in the mid-Atlantic island nation of 63,000 people, home to some of the world’s largest reinsurance firms.

The minority white population has voted almost exclusively for the UBP, which ran Bermuda for 30 years after the vote was given to all citizens, leading to charges it was nothing but a vehicle for whites to extend the control of the economy that they had had since the island was settled in the 1600s.

Supporters, however, say the UBP integrated Bermuda after years of segregation.

Nevertheless, the spoils of Bermuda’s economic success, which has pushed per capita economic production to $76,403, do not appear — according to government statistics — to be evenly shared. White males hold 76 percent of executive positions, while whites make up 73 percent of those earning $96,000 or more a year in the wealthy financial centre.

The centre-right party UBP, which has produced both black and white premiers, once won elections by appealing to black middle-class voters as well as whites.

But when the UBP split over its failed 1995 referendum to take the island to independence, those middle-class blacks switched to the almost exclusively black centre-left PLP in the 1998 election and put it in power.

Furbert, a black who replaced a white UBP leader just a year ago, has vowed to fight on, despite the internal skirmishing.

“We are not down and out. We expect to win,” he said recently. “We have reached rock bottom, the only way is up.”

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