Central Westmoreland showdown - Erskine and Vaz clash in bid to replace Roger Clarke as PNP standard bearer
Adrian Frater, News Editor
The eyes of the ruling People's National Party (PNP) will be glued to Central Westmoreland today as Comrades go to the polls to select a caretaker/candidate to fill the void created by the death of two-term Member of Parliament (MP) Roger Clarke.
Initially, the leadership of the party seemed set to hand-pick attorney-at-law Michael Erskine to fill the vacancy, but it was forced to backtrack after former Member of Parliament Dr Karl Blythe, who had expressed an interest in the job, threatened court action unless the selection was done in accordance with the party's constitution.
But in a release on Friday, the party said it always planned to have a selection process.
According to the PNP, a scientific poll by a professional and reputable pollster in the constituency, last month, showed that one aspirant emerged far ahead, with the support ratios of 47 per cent of those polled, with the next-nearest person polling 27 per cent support.
Interestingly, after the party announced today's 'run-off' route, Blythe withdrew his candidacy, leaving Erskine and businessman Dwayne Vaz, who was reportedly being groomed by Clarke, as the two contenders.
In his letter of withdrawal, Blythe, who served the constituency as MP for close to two decades, told the PNP's general secretary, Paul Burke, that after "serious and painful reflection" on the circumstance, which had led the party to select and endorse a candidate, he had taken the decision to step aside.
However, word on the ground in the constituency is that Blythe might have pulled out of the race because he was not getting the type of traction he was expecting and has decided to endorse Vaz.
"Dr Blythe was a good MP in his time, but his time has passed ... . He is getting old, and he needs to go home and rest," said Marcia Stone, a PNP supporter in the constituency. "Roger was a real vibes man, so we need to replace him with a vibrant person."
While Erskine must be ruing Blythe's intervention, which essentially robbed him of getting the constituency on a platter, his opponent, the 33-year-old Vaz, is relishing the chance to replace his mentor.
"I am confident that I will be the people's choice," said Vaz, who served as a consultant to Clarke for a number of years. "I could not be more confident ... . The feedback on the ground is excellent."
There were early indications that the party's hierarchy had been making subtle suggestions to Vaz to pull out. However, the Comrades who are backing him are adamant that he must stay the course.
Familiar with Clarke's plans
"I was quite familiar with the plans Roger had for this constituency, and as a person who was born here (in Kingswood, close to the Llandilo Cultural Centre in Savanna-la-Mar), I am sure I understand the needs of the people," Vaz told The Sunday Gleaner.
It would appear that there is solid justification for Vaz's optimism as some parish council divisions in the constituency are said to be backing him, and numerous party workers are predicting a landslide victory.
"Dwayne is a people person. He is easy to get along with and the young people adore him," said Maureen Forrester, a Savanna-la-Mar cosmetologist, who leads a group comprising 28 delegates.
"Dwayne was being groomed by Roger Clarke, and I am sure that if Roger was here to vote, he would be voting for Dwayne," added Forrester.
While repeated efforts to reach Erskine, including messages left at his Savanna-la-Mar office and on his cellular phone, were unsuccessful, a member of his campaign team told The Sunday Gleaner that they expected him to prevail today.
"We have been doing the work on the ground, and the vast majority of the delegates have been quite receptive," said the Erskine team member, who asked not to be named.
"Erskine already has the support of the party hierarchy, which had endorsed him before Dr Blythe got involved, so it is now just up to the delegates to do their thing."
A total of 841 delegates from 63 registered PNP groups will be eligible to cast ballots in the run-off.
According to the PNP, only persons who are identified as delegates, based on their names being on the voters' list, will be allowed to enter the Manning's School.
Polling will take place between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and all delegates will be required to present a national identification to exercise their voting rights.
Counting of ballots is expected to be completed by approximately 4:30 p.m.