Andrew's martyr card
Winning an election is not primarily about having the best ideas, the best plans, and the best record. It is about tactics, strategy, optics, gamesmanship, winning hearts.
If the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) wins the election this Thursday, Andrew Holness' master - and martyr - strokes this past week would have played a major part. What a difference a week makes! Many who played the requiem for the JLP up to last week are talking about the glorious resurrection of this past week. Andrew seems to have had an early Easter, having undergone his own crucifixion and resurrection.
In the view of a number of persons, the political ground shifted last Monday evening when Andrew Holness took the unexpected move of issuing a full statement answering innuendos about the source of funding for his mansion. As I wrote last week, "As social scientists know, disgust, revulsion and outrage are very powerful emotions in influencing behaviour."
The feeling that people have 'bad mind' and 'envy' for this poor boy from his little board house in St Catherine who is now building his dream house - like all of us would like to do - has rubbed people really hard and made many angry. Holness' revelation of certain details of his personal business that he would obviously rather keep private, just as any other individual, tugged at people's heart strings and won him enormous sympathy. Peter Phillips' ribbing of Holness has proved to be a blessing in disguise. By playing the martyr card, a powerful hand in the game of life, and taking on the role of the underdog, Holness seems to have made some inroads into that uncommitted category and has fired up Labourites in a frenzy of loyalty that has not been seen in the JLP in a long time.
Life is about decisions. Holness could have decided to just ride out Peter Phillips' attacks, taking comfort in the fact that the polls had already shown that more than 60 per cent felt that was a non-issue for the campaign. But Phillips had stepped up the ante at a press briefing some Mondays ago, and Andrew knew that continued silence would not have been golden in that context. His decision to disclose was a master stroke.
Whether he has answered all the questions is besides the point. The fact is he seems to have scored in terms of winning public sympathy. At least he has made it politically untenable to carry on that line of attack. That's a big political victory. Peter Phillips, also, incidentally, made a brilliant move when he swiftly answered all of Holness' questions about his own house and assets. No one can say there was a scintilla of doubt about Phillips' answer. It was crisp and clear. Good move, Peter.
But the week was Andrew's. Two weeks ago, Andrew seemed a defeated, dejected and dispirited man. He tried to sound upbeat on the platform, but it just wasn't coming through. I kept saying to myself, "Andrew, even if you know you are going to lose, you have to learn to fake it!" Daryl could teach him some acting skills! But last week, it was a different Andrew - upbeat, confident, in command. He kept taunting the PNP about its backing out of the national debates, talking up his readiness to take on Portia or anyone.
Then on Thursday, he pulled out of the RJR Group's offer for an alternative forum for questioning, ostensibly taking the 'principled position' of not in any way wanting to detract from the august Jamaica Debates Commission. In that one act, he won the favour of a number of journalists and commentators, including within the RJR Group itself. Those outside RJR would, naturally, be angered at being shut out of any opportunity to participate.
He also would have played to people in civil society and to the uncommitted, having come across as a genuine man of principle who did not want to reward bad behaviour of a "petulant PNP".
Then he launched his manifesto last Thursday and afterwards took to the streets, where he was met with shouts of "Boss", "General" and "Champion Boy", echoing popular deejay Alkaline's monster hit. He was in Coronation Market with peasants and grass-roots people touting his manifesto and selling his $18,000 extra month-end money, as well as his increased minimum wage. He was in New Kingston shaking hands and giving out manifestos like an ardent Jehovah's Witness. He was all over town meeting and greeting. Audley might be Man a Yard, but Andrew was showing he was Man of the Street.
Inside the hotel where he launched his manifesto, he looked relaxed, easy, and confident as he walked from the podium and again sold his rather tempting income-tax break. I suspect he is going to end this weekend with a massive meeting in Half-Way Tree tonight. The JLP is certainly energised now. But remember, a week is along time in politics. Don't start writing any eulogy yet for the PNP.
Talking raw politics, if I were running the PNP propaganda campaign, there are certain assumptions I would not make. I would not make the foolish and utterly unwarranted assumption that the party's record of achievements was enough. I believe its record is impressive and highly defensible. But trumpeting that alone is not cutting it right now. National broadcasts about that won't have much effect.
Far more important for the PNP right now is to convince people that this very, very tempting $18,000-a-month extra money cannot work and is a three-card trick. The PNP has to discredit this and convince us that it is reckless, fiscally irresponsible and would take us back to where we are coming from. It has only a few days to do so. The PNP should spend a lot of time countering that proposal. Talk about highways, new hotel rooms, passing IMF tests, etc. can't take people's attention away from all the things Andrew is planting in their susceptible minds. Some people have started spending that $18,000 for April payday already!
Andrew's proposal to end all fees at high school and his plan for easier student loans must be countered, too. The PNP has to start chipping away at these proposals, lest we really start believing them.
That Don Anderson poll taken since this week predicts a higher turnout for this year's election than the last one. A high turnout usually favours the Opposition party. The PNP can't afford for the JLP proposals to gain traction with the uncommitted. For the JLP's part, they have to convince us that their proposals are eminently workable and are not pipe dreams. We need some of our best, most informed journalists to put hard, sharp questions to Holness and his team. Don't tell me about political bias, but you would have to have Ralston Hyman on that team. There is no journalist in this country who knows finance and economic matters better than he does. None.
PAJ should seek answers
It is very important that the public has an opportunity to see the two parties' representatives grilled on their ideas. I regret that the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) did not pursue what the RJR Group sought to do: Bring the parties at two separate fora to have them interrogated heavily. The PNP might have made its own strategic decision not to debate. It was ahead in the polls. It might have judged, not foolishly, that it could have more to lose by debating than by not debating. I am no political idealist, so I accept that parties act in their own strategic, partisan interests.
That's not our concern as members of the Fourth Estate. The Jamaica Debates Commission has no monopoly on engaging political leaders in democratic discourse. Once the PAJ saw that the debates would not have happened, it should have got the best and the brightest of its membership to hold a forum with the parties separately. What's this deference to the Jamaica Debates Commission? We as journalists have a public duty to get answers from the parties - in whatever forum or format. We are not tied inflexibly to a debate format. We are quite able to hold political leaders' feet to the fire through our own professional association, not necessarily under the aegis of the Debates Commission. We missed an important opportunity, deferring to form and tradition.
Plus, if the PNP were really just protecting Portia, the PAJ, pursuing an alternative forum would have forced that party's hand and stripped away any excuses. And if the JLP refused to participate in our PAJ-organised debate, go ahead with the PNP alone. We should have no interest in either teaching the PNP a lesson (of not boycotting Debates Commission) or facilitating the JLP. We serve the public interest and our job is to get answers.
But if all politics is, indeed, local, it is not the issues of the articulate minority, but grass-roots organisation and mobilisation that will determine the outcome of this election.
- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.