Mark Wignall | Can Keisha Hayle end the PNP’s jinx?
In the October 2017 by-elections in South St Andrew and South West St Andrew, the People's National Party (PNP) came out big in both instances, but in the huge wins, all they did was remind us how repugnant the reality of garrison politics has been and how 'honourable' men of politics have fully embraced it.
Just in case you may have forgotten, these garrison constituencies are essentially zones of political exclusion where the vote was decided by which residents were given housing benefits. In some instances, voters from 'the other side' were terrorised by gunmen, arson and the constant watching out for the gasolene fire bomb at nights. The raw and nail-biting fear was hardly alleviated by those very residents storing a bucket or two of water just in case a fire bomb was hurled through the glass bedroom window of their wooden houses just before four in the morning.
The scrubby districts where those residents were forced into relocation, then became pockets of political exclusion where 'the other side' created its own garrison.
Held on the same day as the two garrison duds, the by-election in South East St Mary was supposed to have been the one to do it for the Opposition PNP and to send a message to the nation that the leadership of Dr Peter Phillips had the necessary fire in the belly to go for the long haul. Instead, the JLP won comfortably by more than 900 votes.
The PNP has chosen Padmore principal Keisha Hayle as its choice to contest the March 2018 by-election in North West St Andrew, while a JLP insider party heavyweight has been put forward in the person of Dr Nigel Clarke.
Personally, I know a lot more about Ms Hayle than Mr Clarke. In fact, I do not know Clarke, but the things I have heard about him are overwhelmingly positive. Political wisdom would dictate that Clarke should reap the benefits of the loyalty the voters there have long had for the JLP and Derrick Smith, the outgoing MP.
In the last few months I am sure that the JLP and its leader, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, both know that it has not been all smooth sailing for the ruling administration. Violent crime and a murder rate approaching 20% growth over last year have been confounding the JLP administration.
When political nerves are frayed, something has to give, and the person who was once called commissioner of police, George Quallo, had to go, either as sacrificial lamb, failure to assert his leadership or large servings of both. Then just recently Justice Bryan Sykes was appointed acting chief justice where the constitutional conditions which would require the 'acting' placed before his office do not exist.
Turnaround, but, for which party?
From civil society, well-known social voices and the vibrations at street level, the criticisms of the prime minister have been consistent and strident. It is, therefore, not a secret that the PM and the rest of the JLP administration would like most of us to forget these matters and focus on its electoral viability as proof that most of its social and economic programs have been bought by more than 50 per cent of the population.
Nothing so energises a ruling administration like a political win in a by-election. It is like a strong but controlled gust of wind in its sails, a fillip to its own self-belief and just a big confidence booster.
The PNP starts from behind but although I have a personal bias in favour of Ms Hayle, I am certain that as she removes the cap of school principal from her head and morphs into politician instantly, she will map out the path from now to that date in March and know that it will not be easy.
It will not be easy for the PNP to pull back from a defeat where it only scored 39% to the JLP's 61%. Those are not encouraging numbers for Ms. Hayle and the PNP. The Havendale (PNP 36%) and Chancery Hall (PNP 35%) divisions will pose a seemingly insurmountable challenge to Ms Hayle, but I know that she is a person who only grows in strength as challenges mount in their Goliath-like forms.
Dr Clarke and the JLP will be taking even the kitchen sink to the upcoming battle to retain a seat that is considered safe JLP territory. The JLP was obviously in a rush to get Mr. Clarke into elected office and then the Cabinet and some have been making friendly sniping at Finance Minister Audley Shaw by suggesting that Clarke will be more than just another insider breathing down Shaw's neck.
One is not so sure that Shaw has anything left in him to move the ministry into the 'technical' age to foster new directions. In any case, it is always good to have a bright and capable politician standing by the finance minister's open door and constantly glancing at his watch and Shaw in more than mocked impatience. Almost as if to say, 'You still there?'
Both candidates are fine specimens of Jamaican-ness. Clarke seems the more polished of the two and by that I do not mean that Ms. Hayle cannot ape the ways of the falsities and social disconnectedness of some uptowners. From what I know about her, she doesn't have to, because she is more attuned to what happens in the social trenches and is unafraid of working her hands to the bone.
But, of course politics is the roughest game in the world. Hayle has fought off many challenges and the one she wears proudest is the amazing turnaround of Padmore Primary from 'failing institution' to a school where there are now not enough spaces to accommodate those who want to attend.
The impossible will be Hayle's fuel
Ms Keisha Hayle is most familiar with the social and economic lives of the residents of Padmore, a poor community in West Rural St Andrew. Each day she is reminded of the plight of those residents, as many from there and farther afield struggle to get their children to school and feed them adequately.
What many readers take for granted, having a kitchen cupboard with a wide array of food items and a freezer packed with meat, she is constantly aware that each day the struggle continues to meet the needs of bright-faced youngsters. As she nurtures then and fill their minds with fairy tales, pragmatic new concepts in thinking, math and English usage she is always in touch with the eyes of those eager children and the innocence which must be protected.
Although I have never met a politician who has never said, 'Our numbers show that we will win by ...' my advise to Ms. Hayle would be, go for the whole hog but, if all you get is bacon, enjoy the experience. Now I am not committing her at this early stage to the losing column. Some political watchers have expressed to me that the PNP has sent a political neophyte because they expect Mr Clarke, himself a political neophyte, but very definitely a 'heavyweight', while Ms Hayle has no significant chops inside the PNP.
As I write this (Thursday), I am hearing a vehicle advertising the PNP making some announcement from an attached megaphone. I live in the North West St Andrew but spend a lot of time in North East, North Central and West Rural St Andrew. On the assumption that the muffled megaphone message was about the contest, it appears that the PNP is not playing around and acting dead.
In the same way that an electoral win would spur on the ruling JLP administration to accelerate its economic programmes and give it the extra medicine needed to face the out-of-control murder rate, so would a loss force it to renew its general direction.
A win by Ms Hayle would be a bit of a miracle, but sometimes, we can't see a trend until its reality hits us.
- Mark Wignall is a political and public-affairs commentator.