Ian Boyne | The PNP after Portia
Hardly had the eagerly expected words fallen from her mouth that she was making her exit, the campaign to replace her revved into high gear. 'I was loyal to Portia, says Bunting', declared The Gleaner the Monday following Portia Simpson Miller's announcement of her intention not to seek re-election as People's National Party president.
Bunting, in an interview right after the announcement he had been waiting for, was like a lightning bolt out of the blocks with his loyalty pledge: "I challenge anybody to show, by their action, that they have been more loyal to Portia Simpson Miller since she first put her hat in the ring for leadership in 1992 against P.J. Patterson," he demanded. Bunting has been playing his hand quite deftly ever since he declared his interest in the top job.
Despite the urging of some and his own flirtation with the idea of challenging Simpson Miller for the presidency of the party this past September, Bunting has been wise not to do so, avoiding the unquenchable wrath of Comrades. He is acutely aware of one stubborn fact: Portia Simpson Miller may be unpopular nationally, and even unelectable in any national contest, with many now openly ridiculing and disparaging her in the media, but within the party and among delegates, she is unbeatable and still is the Incomparable Mama P.
Bunting would have had absolutely no chance of succeeding her when she decided to leave if he had ever challenged her on the conference floor. Lisa Hanna, to her own surprise, felt the heavy hand of Comrades when she went for a vice-presidential post. Despite her strong favourability among people outside the PNP and in the media, she was trounced. You don't appear to diss Mama P and get rewarded by Comrades.
Bunting knows that, and so he was very careful to distance himself from Lisa right after the big announcement on Sunday. He didn't even need to hear the belligerent chants of 'No Lisa, No Bunting', which reverberated at that National Executive Council (NEC) meeting last Sunday to impel him to disclaim to The Gleaner: "Myself and Lisa Hanna have had no agreement, no partnership or anything along those lines. This is just speculation, or perhaps is the work of propagandists." And in his bid to become leader, he has to keep far from Lisa.
Now that Portia has made the right decision and has generated sympathy capital among even some in the Government who now feel free to say nice things about her, Bunting can't show himself as being a part of the wrecking crew that went to work on demolishing the legacy of Portia Simpson Miller. He had to remind those who had forgotten and, no doubt, tell most for the first time that "I was the person who went up (on the floor of the PNP's annual conference in 1992) and nominated Portia Simpson Miller for president. I have been friend and supporter of hers consistently over the years".
This will be a most interesting contest between the two Peters - Bunting and Phillips - both of whom are politically savvy, smart and strategic. Phillips is the one with the wind to his back, as Portia's Anointed and the one who has been most visibly by her side. Again, that counts for much in the PNP. For many Jamaicans, Portia might be a spent force, and while some Comrades might harbour doubts about whether she can take them to power again, few want to see her disrespected or pushed out. Any impression that anyone is working to undermine her will be, and has been, met with the most bitter and vehement reprisal.
On the day Simpson Miller told Comrades she would not seek re-election in September, Phillips issued a statement to the press saying, "I want to place on record my appreciation of our Comrade leader not only for the stewardship of the party over the past 10 years, but also for her undying commitment to Jamaica and the people of Jamaica, as demonstrated over the past 40 years since she was elected to the Parliament and over 42 years in representational politics."
Phillips lauded her "strong advocacy in and out of Government for the social and economic protection of the poor and most vulnerable ... . This sets her apart as a political leader with a social conscience". As I have emphasised in the past, Jamaican political parties are cults where the leaders have to be revered. You revile them at your own peril if you want to survive within. Loyalty is rewarded and reinforced, while dissent is punished and scorned. Lisa has been learning the hard way and has some more lessons to learn, too.
If she wants to help Bunting, she had better not be seen as campaigning for him, even tacitly. Lisa is a woman of ambition, but also, we must admit, a woman of courage. Some say she has more of that stuff normally associated with manhood than some of her male colleagues in the party. It might not be convenient to identify with her now or anytime before that leadership poll in the PNP, but both Peters owe something to Lisa for her contrarian activities which, some would say, forced Portia's hand. The local government election defeat capped it, but without a growing resonance for renewal and some destabilising work from dissidents, some feel Portia might not have decided to call it quits.
Lisa might be the outcast now, with no seat at the table, but her boldness, internal struggle and willingness to disturb the apple cart benefit not only Bunting but primarily, in fact, Peter Phillips, who seems set to win the leadership contest. The PNP had better do what it is doing fast, smoothly and seamlessly. When Daryl Vaz is prepared to speak on the record about an early election, the PNP can't be caught napping. Portia's taking herself out of the way will help the party, but that will not be enough.
In fact, here is where the Peter Bunting campaign is likely to strike its most resonant melody: Drawing the ageist card, the campaign will be marketing Bunting as the match for Young Andrew, not the soon-to-be-67-year-old Peter Phillips. You see that ageist weapon already brandished by Bunting supporter Ian Hayles, who in dog-whistling language told The Gleaner. "I think that at this time, the PNP is ready for a leader in Comrade Peter Bunting ... . From where I sit, you need someone with the energy that can energise our base." Oh, yeah, Phillips, who celebrates his 67th birthday on December 28, does not have the energy of the trim multimillionaire businessman. Superficial matters matter in politics, and they will be employed in any propaganda strategy.
Portia has said there should be a ban on advertising. But can't the candidates conduct advertising that deals with real issues, real differences and a real vision for the PNP and the country? It should be in their interest to sponsor debates, which media houses should be paid to carry. PNP delegates need to hear their ideas, their policies, their programmes and their views on certain critical issues. Don't just utilise closed-door meetings. Both Phillips and Bunting, in my view, are eminently qualified to lead the PNP. Both of them are bright, articulate and committed Jamaicans.
Phillips has an enviable track record of economic management and fiscal discipline, and history will be kind to him for having steered Jamaica from a fiscally irresponsible and profligate path. Phillips will get strong backing from The Gleaner, where he has always been favoured, and for good reasons (He already had a favourable lead story on Tuesday, 'MPs back Phillips'). Phillips also has good support in the private sector, where he is highly respected as a sound technician. He is a serious intellectual with a strong pedigree in social activism. He is, after all, Aubrey Phillips' son.
Bunting is a highly successful businessman, as well as highly successful politician. He is amiable and affable, with a generally gentle spirit. He is also a thinker with an appreciation of philosophy. (He is one politician I can discuss Buddhist thinkers and Eastern philosophy with.) He has a good relationship with the Church and took a holistic approach to national security, which made a real difference in policy formation. The PNP would be in good hands with either Peter.
Portia has avoided further disrespect by giving her timetable. She will depart with the honour and dignity that she deserves.