Editorial | Peter Bunting’s mixed message
Peter Bunting's decision to abandon his quest for the presidency of the People's National Party (PNP) and his statement of explanation thereof accomplished two things. One is unquestionably good for the party. The other raises questions about the way the PNP goes about its business and whether, in the long run, the party is well served by this process.
Barring a stunning late development, Peter Phillips will be crowned as the next leader of the PNP sometime after Portia Simpson Miller declares her formal timetable for ending her decade-old stint as head of the party, having a week ago announced that she will not seek re-election at the end of her current mandate in September. The broad expectation is that the transition will happen by February.
In the aftermath of the PNP's general election defeat, and in the midst of calls for renewal in the party, Mr Bunting, the security minister in the previous administration, signalled his intention to challenge Mrs Simpson Miller for leadership. He, however, retreated on the grounds of pending municipal elections and his wish for Mrs Simpson Miller to set her own timetable for departure.
When the PNP president disclosed her plans, Mr Bunting threw his hat into the ring. The other declared contestant was Dr Phillips, a top party official and ex-Cabinet minister who twice previously fought for the leadership of the party, and at 66, is a decade Mr Bunting's senior. Unexpectedly, however, Mr Bunting withdrew from the race.
Here is the good thing about that. The party's defeat in the general election, and subsequently in the municipal polls, though narrow, exposed deep schisms in the PNP, having to do, in part, with concerns over the quality of Mrs Simpson Miller's leadership and perceptions that it had lost its ideological moorings; it no longer knew what it stood for.
An open contest for the leadership would likely have exacerbated the divisions within the party, demanding a prolonged period of healing. That would be good for the governing Jamaica Labour Party, but bad for the supporters of the PNP and Jamaicans, more broadly. Liberal democracies benefit from having strong and vibrant oppositions, ready to take the reins of government if required to do so.
But there is the second prong of Mr Bunting's statement. In the aftermath of Mrs Simpson Miller's declaration, he explained, he consulted with the party's national parliamentary and local government leaders and "concluded that a large majority feel that "it is Comrade Peter Phillips' turn".
"In the face of this strong sentiment, it would be irresponsible to cause the party to expend resources and divert our focus and energy at this time," he said.
This newspaper has no doubt in Peter Phillips' capacity to lead the PNP, but the phrase, "it is Comrade Peter Phillips' turn", suggests not an accession based on competence, vision, and in this case, an ability at building consensus among disparate groups. Rather, it is more akin to a royal succession based on privilege, and having served a prescribed apprenticeship. Indeed, as Mr Bunting said, "leadership decisions should be made on a wider set of considerations".
If Mr Bunting, in fact, believes this idea, he betrayed a fundamental principle for an easy path, with little value neither to himself nor those who believed in his mission. Perhaps he will provide a deeper explanation of his action.