Ian Boyne | Comrades at arms
The Jamaica Observer might have turned on the political death siren for Portia Simpson Miller, but the sounds they should listen to were those coming from Mark Golding and Lisa Hanna, two prominent supporters of would-be challenger Peter Bunting.
Comrade Mark, speaking at the official launch of his bid for the South St Andrew seat of Omar Davies, where a satellite leadership contest is being waged, demonstrated unmistakably that Portia was still a formidable force. He had to make it absolutely clear, if he were to a have any chance of succeeding Omar, that he loves, deeply respects, and is loyal to Portia Lucretia Simpson Miller. "I love Sista P. I respect Sista P, so don't mek nuh guy tell yuh anything," the usually staid and proper Golding said in persuasive Patois.
Mark, to applause at every point at which he mentioned Portia's name, spoke of his history with her and how she promoted him to several positions. In a sharp and subtle jab at Peter Phillips - a main contender against his man, Bunting - Mark recalled how, in 2008, when Peter Phillips challenged Sista P, he did not join with him, for he said he could not do that to Sista P. Even louder applause.
Earlier in the week, Lisa 'Renewal Now' Hanna gave an interview to TVJ in which she spoke of her love for Sista P, saying the leader should be allowed to work out her own timetable of departure with her allies. People who write editorials and columns need to know what is actually happening on the ground and what the dynamics are.
The fact is that while the electorate just recently rejected Sista P, her support among her party delegates and grass-roots Comrades stands firm, and "any guy" who challenges her will feel their wrath and fury.
So guys and prim and proper ladies have to publicly pay their homage and respect to her if they are to have any chance of advancing in the party. The Jamaica Observer, last week, ran two successive editorials on the leadership challenge, their first titled 'Time for Mrs Simpson Miller to prepare for exit'. In it, the paper counsels: "Mrs Simpson Miller and her loyal supporters must take stock and make a realistic assessment of her role going forward. From this distance, it seems clear that the right thing is for Mrs Simpson Miller to establish a sensible exit strategy so that her party can prepare for orderly succession."
The Observer warns that if she does not, "she runs the very real risk of becoming - in the harsh language of
politics - damaged goods, hurting her party, just as was the case for the JLP in the 1990s and 2000s when Mr Edward Seaga stayed on for much too long. It is important that champions know when to walk away; when to fold."
The problem the articulate minority, editorial writers, and Portia PNP critics face is that the majority of Comrades - and certainly delegates - don't share their opinion that Portia has reached her expiry date. There are, indeed, some Comrades who are saying of Portia, "Time come!" and who feel that in the interest of the party, she, at 70, should step aside. They feel the longer she stays, the more she is hurting the party. But I submit that they are in the minority.
Those bold affirmations of love for Sista P coming from Mark Golding and Lisa Hanna testify to Portia's hold on the heartstrings of Comrades. Some political parties in the Caribbean are like religious cults, where loyalty has to be constantly affirmed and disloyalty punished and dissenters made an example of. If Peter Bunting goes ahead with any challenge of Portia at conference, he would be committing political suicide.
Peter Phillips has been playing his cards well. He is busily organising his forces, too, but not to challenge the leader; just to ensure that when the mantle falls to him, he is ready organisationally. Peter has learnt from his own two bitter defeats in going up against Portia. Having strong parliamentary group backing, financing, intellectual firepower, and strong pedigree did not help him to defeat Portia. Portia has been walking hand in hand with him these days, including literally in strolling into Parliament at its opening.
While some suspect that there is no love lost between them, they are united in seeing Bunting shut out of the top position for daring to want to challenge. Phillips is heavily invested in the status quo. He, as campaign director of the failed election bid, was the one stoking the fire on Andrew's big house. He was the finance minister who put austerity on our backs while passing IMF tests. The appraisal report now completed won't be easy on those who were directing things in the last campaign. Those disaffected with Portia will boil Phillips in that same red-hot pot.
But Phillips has nothing to lose by playing the loyalty card. He will garner Portia's substantial delegate support as well as his own. Some of his own people are also strong Portia detractors. And especially if Bunting commits political suicide by challenging Portia, the way will be clear for him. Meanwhile, that contest for Omar's constituency is a proxy presidential race between Bunting and Portia.
Colin Campbell, a strong Portia loyalist, has entered the race so that Mark Golding won't get a smooth sailing into that safe PNP seat. (Mark is already being seen as a future finance minister in his former business partner Bunting's Cabinet). Mark had to pledge his undying love and loyalty to Portia, for he knows that once Colin spreads the view that he is against Portia, things are stacked against him. And, no, colleague George Davis, it's not simply a matter of who Omar anoints will win. Omar does have strong influence there, but if it begins to circulate that Omar is really backing Bunting against Portia, his word won't be savoury to constituents and delegates.
That big photo you saw in the background at the launch with Mark and the party leader is highly significant, strategically. I heard that Portia went into a big Comrade funeral in Lisa's constituency last weekend and was mobbed by enthusiastic supporters. Lisa saw that. They know Portia's continuing pull among ordinary Comrades and delegates.
The PNP has a real dilemma. Many Comrades sense that the sky is not about to fall under Andrew and that the Apocalypse is not about to descend on Jamaica. The more Andrew succeeds, the less relevant the PNP under Portia will become. The problem is that they feel Portia is unelectable, as Seaga had become, but the 'electable' can't get past the PNP delegates. That's one helluva dilemma! And with Andrew's one-seat majority, Portia detractors can't rest easy and give Portia her own sweet time to leave. Any number can play, and they have to be prepared to take power anytime.
Plus, they know Portia has no immediate plans of going anywhere. Bunting's leadership aspirations are eliciting a circling of the wagons. Portia's people are digging in their heels.
If she had even thought of leaving soon - and there was absolutely no indication of that - Portia and her palace guard would never want it to seem that they are capitulating. A persecution complex develops, as in religious cults, and the troops are rallied together in holy war against the infidels. Rev Ronald Thwaites, your prayers are needed!
Phillips will be 70 in a few years, and the ageist propaganda will be even stronger then. Nationally, Peter Bunting will be seen as the only alternative to Andrew Holness. Bunting is young, bright, likable, convivial, and a mega-successful businessman. He has appeal. In my view, the two Peters are eminently qualified to succeed Portia, though Phillips needs to moderate his enthusiasm for neo-liberalism.
More fundamentally, the PNP faces an existential crisis. What do they really stand for? Who are they? What is their distinctive, core philosophy? With Andrew taking their progressive space and the PNP now reduced to just defending hard-core IMF policies and austerity, what is their appeal? What is their platform now that they are fighting Andrew's tax break and no-auxiliary-fee populism? These are bigger issues than the personality fights, back-stabbing, and bloodletting that now consume them.