Thu | Jul 18, 2019

Daniel Thwaites | Excitement on Old Hope Road

Published:Sunday | June 16, 2019 | 12:36 AM

The big news this last week is the declaration by Peter Bunting that he will be challenging Peter Phillips for the leadership of the People’s National Party (PNP).

As one might expect, the announcement was met by surprise and excitement in some quarters, anger and indignation in others, and, because we ARE talking about politics, by disinterest among a whole other set.

Internal contests are capable of generating bitterness with an intensity that regular electoral competitions never could, and the scars last for years. I’m constantly amazed at the elephantine memories of some people, at least when it comes to these matters. They will forget their mother’s name, but not how the forces aligned in an internal fight. This is true of both parties.

Anyway, once the initial shock that a challenge is actually under way wears off, then perhaps the relative merits of the contestants will come into sharper relief. As I see it, both Peters are accomplished persons with enviable lists of successes and long résumés.

For now, I want to ruminate on the genesis of the PNP’s travails, although I suppose to even call it that is to already invite controversy, because there are, one imagines, a few dozen people out there – somewhere – who think all is well in the PNP. But a string of electoral defeats, along with poll numbers indicating that there’s more to come, will cause reality-based thinkers to take pause.

Actually, I think some of the PNP’s problems date all the way back to Bruce Golding’s choice to resist the extradition of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. It was a monumental decision that has had an exceedingly long tail.

Permit me to explain.

For one thing, the ensuing series of disasters propelled Andrew Holness into leadership of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), and after his first brief stint, into the prime ministerial role. In this respect, there is a direct line of causation from Dudus to Holness’ premiership. Never mind that. The scandal had the dramatic impact of rearranging the decks in the JLP pretty thoroughly. Currently, despite legitimate causes for great concern, Holness’ popularity is soaring.

Then there’s the less obvious impact on the PNP. I believe that the current challenge for the PNP presidency also has some roots in this same Dudus debacle. Why? Because the cataclysmic collapse of the Golding administration gave an unmerited new energy to the PNP that it rightfully didn’t deserve, and wouldn’t have been able to muster otherwise.

What the JLP’s suicide in 2011 masked were the serious structural deficiencies in the PNP’s organisation, and factional infighting that was metastasising.

Furthermore, it gave fresh legs to many long-time players who really should have been on their way home after the 2007 loss to tend to their medical conditions, their grandchildren and great-grands, and to plant and reap vegetables in their backyard garden. It didn’t happen.

In other words, the natural evolution of the PNP was disrupted by the ‘political blessing’ of Dudus-inspired mayhem, far more so than even Audley’s serious economic mismanagement. That mismanagement, by the way, could also be traced to his internal campaign to succeed Golding, as it became clear that he couldn’t last.

In sum, coupled with P.J. Patterson’s long reign, the Dudus ‘gift’ of the 2011 election has left the PNP seriously constipated.

More generally, as a country we could profit mightily if we adopted the convention that, other things being equal, leaders should resign after an election loss.

Let’s not go all the way back, but suffice it to say that there are very persuasive arguments that Michael Manley should have called it quits in 1980, Edward Seaga in 1989, and Portia Simpson Miller in 2007. The exception to that rule would be Holness’ loss in 2011, which could hardly be laid completely at his feet, given that he assumed captaincy of a severely battered vessel.

Anyway, after the massive and lopsided PNP win in 2011, the 2016 loss came to many as a dramatic surprise. Truly it was a huge collapse and historic reversal, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since 1980. Some 11 seats were lost, and many others won by such seriously reduced margins, that the outwardly respectable 31 seat count was deceptive. Had there been more time for campaigning after the disastrous decision to pull Portia out of the debates, and the weak policy response to the famous ‘1.5’ promise, many other seats would have fallen.

The news since then has hardly improved. East Portland was another cataclysm for the PNP. The most popular, newly minted vice-president jumped forth to contest a seat that hadn’t been lost by the PNP in decades. He was up against a supposedly neophyte housewife.

Under the circumstances, if Action-Ann had merely done well and remained competitive, it would have been a serious danger signal. That she won has sent shock waves and reverberations, the latest of which is this challenge.

WRITING ON THE WALL

Analysis of the East Portland results indicates that new and younger voters overwhelmingly broke towards the JLP. That’s the writing on the wall. Since then, there have been some notable young additions to the PNP’s list of candidates, but it’s not yet evident that the populace is paying it much mind.

All of which is to say that the current excitement in the PNP may have some utility, regardless of whether it is ultimately judged positively or negatively.

Remember Audley’s challenge to Andrew? Andrew was sharpened up by the challenge. His public image became more defined and his leadership of the JLP was solidified. The lingering sentiment that he had made it to the premier post only because of a relative distance from the Dudus debacle was extinguished.

Never mind that Audley has since been demoted, he can still be found dancing his signature jigs on the platform, and is busily exporting mangoes and what not.

Of course, Peter Phillips isn’t new to the arena of presidential challenges, so the argument about this being an opportunity for him to freshly advance his public persona doesn’t hold in quite the same way as it did with Andrew. But he did assume the leadership of the PNP by acclaim, and not as the victor of a contest.

So it’s difficult to say that the challenge will necessarily be a bad thing. Few events draw so much attention among our people like a good fight. Well, maybe a good dancer can draw as much crowd. Which is fine. Because we can safely say that one Peter or the other will be dancing the Audley-jig on stage after the September conference.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com