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Editorial | Simpson Miller may yet have a worthy exit

Published:Monday | December 5, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Portia Simpson Miller's announcement that she is stepping down as president of the People's National Party (PNP) and, presumably, retiring from politics altogether was not entirely unexpected. But now that it has happened, it still appears to have taken many people by surprise.

That, in part, is because, on this issue, the PNP leader has been largely unpredictable. Her critics will claim she has been stubborn and insensitive to the needs of the party, especially on the matter of renewal, which has been the dominant issue for many members since they lost the general election in February.

Mrs Simpson Miller turns 71 in a week's time. In the aftermath of the February vote, there were many demands for her to make way for a new leader or, at least, one with new ideas, to rejuvenate a party that had grown intellectually jaded and stale. She appeared, at one point, to be acquiescing to those demands, but pulled back at the last moment and eventually defeated a weak challenge from Karl Blythe, whose ultimate claim to credibility was his courage to throw his hat in the ring.

So, Mrs Simpson Miller, while still a formidable but weakened political force nationally, was, probably, in the medium term, unassailable in the PNP. In the circumstance, personal vanity, and a need for vindication, the sense that she could lead her party to another victory, might have caused her to hold on. It is the same malady that afflicted Edward Seaga, causing him to maintain his grip on the Jamaica Labour Party, becoming a serial election loser, until it was obvious that, sentiment notwithstanding, he would have to be dislodged from leadership.

Mrs Simpson Miller will avoid similar embarrassment. Moreover, she can construct a credible political narrative for her departure.

First, while taking Jamaica through four years of austerity, including achieving an unheard-of primary surplus of more than seven per cent of gross domestic product, her party only narrowly - by a single parliamentary seat - lost the government in February.

 

FUNDAMENTAL STRIDES

 

Further, in the circumstance where the party that wins the general election is usually victorious in the municipal polls, the PNP was far from humiliated in those held last month, having won four of the 13 parish corporations and tied in a fifth. It also won the Portmore municipality, including its directly elected mayor. It is incontestable, as she claimed yesterday, that her 2012-2016 government made "some of the most fundamental strides to set the Jamaican economy on the right track".

For someone who came to leadership and government with a populist orientation, that, paradoxically, may be Mrs Simpson Miller's most lasting legacy: presiding over a government that established macroeconomic stability and placed Jamaica on a path to sustainable growth.

She might, too, accomplish something that her presumably far more politically savvy predecessor didn't manage: a leadership contest and transition that don't leave the PNP internally divided and externally battered than need be the case. Leadership contests are, perforce, divisive. P.J. Patterson oversaw an extraordinarily long one that caused nearly a decade of damage and unease after he had gone.

PNP sources say Mrs Simpson Miller wants a limited campaign and will organise her departure to ensure this. She has also talked about a campaign code of conduct that eschews public advertising. Essentially, she wants to make the contest an internal affair. If she achieves this, she will have done well by her party.