Sat | Nov 17, 2018

Editorial | In the aftermath of South East St Mary

Published:Wednesday | November 1, 2017 | 12:05 AM


It's either the People's National Party (PNP) didn't do a good enough job vetting Shane Alexis, decided that his citizenship status wouldn't matter to voters in South East St Mary, or felt that placing him on the ballot was a manageable risk. Either way, it backfired.

So, in Monday's crucial by-election in the constituency, the PNP lost a seat it had held by a thread, while the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) adds a bit more cushion to its thin one-seat majority in the House of Representatives. The outcome has consequences for both parties' leaders, the PNP's Peter Phillips and Prime Minister Andrew Holness of the JLP.

For Mr Holness, what that is, is obvious. He emerges from the election stronger, although he couldn't claim his government to be in a comfortable place. Its strength is still relatively tenuous.

Nonetheless, up to Monday, the JLP held a majority of a single seat in the 63-member House. While that posed no constraint to the constitutional authority of the government or the prime minister, Mr Holness would likely have been restrained in certain actions, including the timing of parliamentary votes and the disciplining of unruly ministers, or his thin back bench. It would require only one MP to walk out in a huff to potentially bring down the government.

Mr Holness might claim, as his energy and technology minister did after the vote, that the result of South East St Mary, one of the three by-elections on which people were focused, is an indication of the country's satisfaction with his administration. In the February 2016 general election, the JLP's Norman Dunn lost by five votes to the PNP's Winston Green, whose death in August created the vacancy. On Monday, Dr Dunn flipped the table. He got 56 per cent of the votes, slightly lower than the 57 per cent the JLP won in the constituency's four divisions in municipal elections nine months ago. Mr Holness and his party will no doubt use this outcome to creative a narrative of support for the JLP.

For the PNP's Dr Phillips, the cost of this defeat is not certain, but it would embolden critics in the party and give a fillip to those with ambitions to lead. It will also likely raise questions of judgement on the part of Dr Phillips and his closest advisers.

With the victory in two PNP strongholds of South and South West St Andrew almost foregone, a win in South East St Mary would have been a psychological boost for Dr Phillips in his first electoral outing as the PNP's leader. Further, he had cast the St Mary vote as a referendum on the Holness administration and though a general election is constitutionally more than three years away, a victory would have created a platform to carry the argument of the administration's failure and to stamp his authority on the PNP.

But the most likely immediate questions Dr Phillips will face are about the choice of Dr Alexis as his party's standard-bearer. Dr Alexis, who came to national attention as a vocal, unflinching president of the Medical Association of Jamaica is a good catch for the PNP and would normally be an attractive election candidate.

But for this outing, he had an Achilles heel, or at least a distraction. Early in the campaign, his opponents disclosed that Dr Alexis wasn't a Jamaican citizen. He was born in Canada to a Grenadian mother with permanent residence in Jamaica and has lived here all his life. He is married to a Jamaican. Yet, until his recent application, he had not sought Jamaican citizenship.

Although as a Commonwealth citizen Dr Alexis is eligible to sit in Parliament, his opponents consistently questioned his commitment to Jamaica. If and how much the controversy affected the election result - he lost by 934 votes - is not known, but party critics will likely ask at what point Dr Phillips knew about the citizenship issue, and if it was from the start, why he took the risk.

Given the recency of his ascendancy to the party presidency, those with long knives for Dr Phillips might for now keep them in their sheaths. But in this circumstance, he has to be watchful.