Bermuda is a parliamentary representative democratic dependency. The premier is the head of government, and there is a multi-party system.
Bermuda is the oldest self-governing British Overseas Territory and has a great degree of internal autonomy. Its parliament held its first session in 1620, making it the third-oldest continuous parliament in the world. The original system of government was created under the Virginia Company, which colonised Bermuda, accidentally in 1609, and deliberately from 1612. The Virginia Company lost its Royal Charter for North America ("Virginia") in 1622, and the Crown assumed responsibility for the administration of the continental colony. Bermuda, however, passed in 1615 to a new company, The Somers Isles Company (The Somers Isles being the other official name of the colony), formed by the same shareholders. The House of Assembly was created under that company, which continued to appoint governors until it was dissolved in 1684, with the Crown assuming responsibility for the Colony's administration. The Crown left in place the political system created under the Company. The Colonial Parliament originally consisted only of the lower house. The Privy Council, an appointed body, served in the roles of an upper house and a cabinet. The President of The Council could find himself temporarily acting as governor when no governor was present.
Voting was originally restricted to male landowners. When the numbers of non-white landowners began to increase, a minimum value was established for the properties which entitled their owners to vote. In 1960, this was £60. A man could vote in each parish in which he owned sufficiently valuable land – giving the richest whites as many as nine votes each if they so desired.
Since 1968 Bermuda has had a constitution that sets out its structure of government. Queen Elizabeth II is head of state and is represented in Bermuda by a governor, whom she appoints. Internally, Bermuda has a parliamentarysystem of government. The governor has special responsibilities in four areas: external affairs, defence, internal security, and the police.
The constitution provided the island with formal responsibility for internal self-government, while the British Government retained responsibility for external affairs, defence, and security. The Bermudian Government is always consulted on any international negotiations affecting the territory. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the Parliament.
Bermuda's first political party, the Progressive Labour Party (PLP), was formed in February 1963 with predominantly black and working class adherents. Its leadership quickly became dominated by West Indian Bermudians (the 20th century had seen considerable immigration from the West Indies, resulting in profound social and political changes in Bermuda). In 1965, the two-party system was launched with the formation of the United Bermuda Party (UBP), which had the support of the majority of white voters and of some blacks. A third party, the Bermuda Democratic Alliance (BDA) (not to be confused with a party of the same name founded in 2009), was formed in the summer of 1967 with a splinter group from the PLP as a nucleus; it disbanded in 1970. It was later replaced by the National Liberal Party (NLP) which contested elections until 2003 with no success.
Bermuda's first election held on the basis of universal adult suffrage and equal voting took place on 22 May 1968; previously, the franchise had been limited to property owners and those above the age of 21. Persons who owned land in one or more parishes could vote in each parish. In the 1968 election, the UBP won 30 House of Assembly seats, while the PLP won 10 and the BDP lost the three seats it had previously held. The UBP continued to maintain control of the government, although by decreasing margins in the Assembly, until 1998 when the PLP won the general election for the first time with 54% of the popular vote and a 24-seat majority in the 40-member Assembly. The PLP would succeed gaining a second term in July 2003, although by a reduced majority of 52% margin of the popular vote and 22 seats in a new 36-seat Assembly. A leadership battle followed the election, resulting in the PLP's first Premier, Jennifer M. Smith (now Dame Jennifer) being ousted with William Alexander Scott chosen as new Party Leader and later Premier. In December 2007, after an October 2006 party leadership change in which Dr. Ewart F. Brown, Jr. became Premier, the PLP gained a third term by maintaining a 52% margin of the popular vote and 22 out of 36 seats in the Assembly. Paula Cox replaced Brown as leader of the PLP, and therefore the Premier, in October 2010.
Unsatisfied aspirations, particularly among young blacks, led to a brief civil disturbance in December 1977, following the execution of two men found guilty of the 1972–73 assassinations of Governor Sir Richard Sharples and four others. In the 1980s, the increasing prosperity of Bermudians, combined with limited land area, caused severe pressure in housing. Despite a general strike in 1981 and poor economic conditions worldwide during 1981–83, Bermuda's social, political, and economic institutions showed resilience and stability.
Bermuda's positive experience with internal self-government has led to discussions of possible complete independence by both parties. However, an independence referendum called by a sharply divided UBP in the summer of 1995 was resoundingly defeated and resulted in the resignation of the Premier and UBP leader, Sir John Swan. Just over 58% of the electorate voted in the independence referendum, which had to be postponed one day due to disruptions caused by Hurricane Felix in 1995. Of those voting, over 73% voted against independence, while only 25% voted in favour. The vote may not have been a true test of support for independence, however, as the Progressive Labour Party (PLP) urged its membership and supporters to boycott the referendum. The PLP stated that the unwillingness of the UBP government to put forward a plan of substantive constitutional reform made it impossible for it to support the referendum.
This was despite independence having been one of the PLP's central principles since the party's inception in 1963. In 1968, the PLP election platform stated that, "No government can be either responsible or democratic while under the rule of another country. Colonialism is a cancer....Therefore we shall return to London to examine with the British Government what arrangements can be made for our independence."
Despite the previous emphasis, any mention of independence was absent from the PLP's general election platform both in 1998, when the PLP first triumphed at the polls, and again in 2003. In fact, Premier Jennifer M. Smith stated that she would not pursue independence during her first term. Again, in 2001, she made the following statement: "As I have stated repeatedly, consistently and unequivocally since assuming the leadership of the Bermuda Progressive Labour Party, I shall state once again for the record – independence is not an issue that we will address in our first term and probably not in our second term....We believe that there are a number of areas that need addressing before Bermuda heads down this road."
Under the leadership of Smith, the Government of Bermuda began to systematically address the issues that it believes are fundamental prerequisites for independence. It very quickly enacted legislation providing for the elimination of annual voter registration. In 2001, the government began taking steps to amend Bermuda's constitution in order to abolish the island's system of parish-based, dual-seat constituencies which favored voters in parishes of small, predominantly white populations. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) prepared an Order in Council empowering the Constituency Boundaries Commission to recommend to the governor the number and boundaries of single-member constituencies into which Bermuda should be divided. The Commission held meetings with the public and concluded its deliberations. The governor then submitted the commission's report to the UK's Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, together with the views of the House of Assembly. Finally, the FCO prepared a second Order in Council for presentation to the Privy Council to effect the proposals made by the commission, including constitutional amendments relating to electoral boundaries and representation.
Bermuda electoral politics has been characterized by single-party dominance: the UBP was the dominant party from 1968 to 1998, winning every election; while the PLP has continuously been in power since 1998. The formation of the opposition One Bermuda Alliance (OBA) from a merger of the Bermuda Democratic Alliance (BDA) and most members of the UBP was driven by polls showing that the PLP would easily win a fourth straight term if they faced either the UBP or BDA in an election.
Formerly deputy premier, Michael Dunkley became premier in May 2014 after his predecessor, Craig Cannonier, resigned over the so-called Jetgate controversy involving political donations from an American businessman. Mr Dunkley took over as leader of the One Bermuda Alliance and brought Mr Cannonier back into the cabinet in 2015. Mr Dunkley was previously a minister of public safety for his party after it won the 2012 general election.