Editorial | Opportunity in PNP contest
The fear with which large swathes of the People’s National Party (PNP) will probably face Peter Bunting’s challenge for the party’s leadership is likely to be exaggerated. The contest could, in the end, be good for the PNP, although the process is not risk-free.
Much, though, will depend on how Mr Bunting, and the party’s incumbent leader, Peter Phillips, conduct themselves. In that regard, they have templates, including from within their own party, of the good and the bad in such contests.
That Mr Bunting, a youthful 58, and the national security minister in the PNP’s 2014-2016 administration, decided to throw his hat in the ring isn’t surprising. He has long harboured ambitions of leading the party and, before this formal declaration of a challenge, had twice shaped up to contest for the post.
In early 2016, when the party lost the Government, Mr Bunting was part of the simmering agitation for the then leader, Portia Simpson Miller, to move on to allow for a process of renewal. He even formed an exploratory committee to assess his candidacy, but, in the end, decided against challenging Mrs Simpson Miller at that year’s party conference.
A year later, in March 2017, when Mrs Simpson Miller stepped down and endorsed Dr Phillips, her former rival, Mr Bunting declared his intention to have a run for the top job, but eventually pulled out in the face, he said, of the arguments that it was “Dr Phillips’ time”, allowing the former finance minister to ascend to the presidency unopposed.
BAD MOVE, Bunting
That, in retrospect, may have been bad, or at least, not the best, for both men and the PNP.
Whatever may be the personal failings that contributed to Dr Phillips’ inability to quickly stamp his authority on the party and bend it to his will, it is clear that his unchallenged ascension played a part.
On one side of the ledger, the PNP avoided the quarrels and a potential divisive campaign, such as was the case when Dr Phillips challenged Mrs Simpson Miller in 2008, or when both of them were among four contenders to succeed P.J. Patterson in 2006. Dr Phillips, however, couldn’t assert power with the psychological certitude as when that authority is at the command of the ballot box. Moreover, even sometimes fractious internal campaigns can energise political parties, especially if it is clear in whom the members bestow confidence.
It is likely that Mr Bunting, in the two years of Peter Phillips’ leadership, has second-guessed himself, with his questions deepening, especially in the face of the party’s loss of two by-elections in seats it held, and his view that the incumbent is taking the PNP in the wrong direction and, more important, has become an election liability.
In essence, Mr Bunting’s assessment of Dr Phillips’ leadership, and its failure to appropriately position the PNP, isn’t fundamentally different from what he felt about Mrs Simpson Miller.
“… Since becoming president, (Dr Phillips) has not implemented a single transformational initiative within the party, and is just not seen as the right person for this time,” Bunting said in the statement announcing his candidacy. In 2016, when he contemplated a challenge to Mrs Simpson Miller, he told this newspaper that the PNP was in need of an overhaul and that the “change can’t be incremental”.
“We need a change in message, messenger,” he said then. “The image we project to the public must be completely modernised.”
That, indeed, may be an upside from this process, although the challenge, in and of itself, would have weakened Dr Phillips, exacerbated by Mr Bunting’s declaration of his ineptitude in the job.
Whoever wins will have a major job of healing the party. Mr Bunting might have done better by highlighting his own credentials for the job, framing them in a larger policy context.
For image and communication strategies are important to the functioning of political parties. But they are not ends in themselves. We expect parties to seek state power in selfless pursuance of public good and the maintenance of a democratic government. In this respect, we expect the contest between Dr Phillips and Mr Bunting to be about the substance of what the party stands for and where it would take Jamaica under their leadership.