Sat | Feb 22, 2020

SHOWDOWN - Vaz, Crawford go down to the wire in East Portland by-election

Published:Thursday | April 4, 2019 | 12:20 AMGareth Davis Sr/Gleaner Writer

Today’s high-stakes by-election in East Portland could cause tremors as pundits and party officials will judge whether the result could be a weathervane of the political fortunes of the ruling Jamaica Labour Party and the Opposition People’s National Party as Ann-Marie Vaz and Damion Crawford face off after an approximately monthlong campaign.

Political watchers have suggested that the by-election could be a de facto referendum on the leadership of both parties – Andrew Holness, the prime minister, for the JLP, and Peter Phillips, the opposition leader and PNP president.

The JLP currently holds 33 seats in the 63-member House of Representatives, a slight increase on their February 2016 general election count after picking up South East St Mary in a by-election in October 2017. Victory here could give the JLP a five-seat cushion.

One hundred and twenty polling stations are expected to open at 7 a.m. in five municipal divisions – Fellowship, Fairy Hill, Port Antonio, Manchioneal, and Prospect – where the electorate will cast their ballots.

The decision lies with the 36,315 constituents who are eligible to vote, which represents an increase of 1,925 electors, up from 34,390 in 2016. The electors were declared on the November 2018 voters’ list.

The Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) centre in Port Antonio, Portland, is reporting that all is set for today’s vote.

Returning officer at the Port Antonio office, Silbert Davis, told The Gleaner yesterday afternoon that the EOJ was expecting seamless voting throughout the constituency.

“All is in place for tomorrow (Thursday’s) by-election,” said Davis.

“All supervisors, poll clerks, and presiding officers are ready for the start of election day activities. All packages have been handed over and we expect a smooth start to the opening of the polls at 7 a.m.”

East Portland, long considered a bastion of PNP power, is under threat, according to the RJRGLEANER-commissioned Don Anderson polls, which show Crawford trailing Vaz by more than six percentage points. Other polls indicate that Crawford has even more ground to make up.

The constituency has remained in the columns of the PNP for 30 unbroken years.

It is expected that the election could turn on Prospect and Fellowship.

In the February 2016 general election, the PNP polled 2,138 votes to the JLP’s 1,132. But months later, in the November 2016 municipal elections, the PNP polled only 327 votes more – 1,221 to 894.

In Fellowship, 1,636 voters cast ballots for the PNP, and 986 for the JLP in the February 2016 general election. But by the November municipal polls, the JLP beat the PNP 1,300 votes to 944.

Even though municipal polls do not hold the same political weight as the general elections, and the candidacies are different, they give insight into voting trends along party lines.

Since Independence in 1962, there have been 12 contested parliamentary elections – 1962, 1967, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1989, 1993, 1997, 2002, 2007, 2011, and 2016. The PNP has won the East Portland seat 10 times. The JLP took home East Portland in 1962 and 1980.

In 1983, the PNP did not contest the parliamentary election, which saw Gerald Tucker of the JLP being elected unopposed.

Interestingly, the 2016 general election saw the late Dr Lynvale Bloomfield of the PNP receiving fewer votes than he did in 2011.

In a one-sided contest, Bloomfield polled 8,580 votes to the JLP’s Derron Wood’s 6,345, winning by 2,235.

Five years earlier, in 2011, Bloomfield polled 9,314 to the JLP’s Patrick Lee’s 8,061.

Bloomfield, a medical doctor, was found murdered at his Passley Gardens home in Portland on February 2 this year.

Ann-Marie Vaz, 53, has burnished her image as a folksy “country girl” with little core political experience but plenty of heart and has promoted the moniker ‘Action Ann’ to define her activism. She is the wife of neighbouring West Portland Member of Parliament Daryl Vaz.

Crawford, 38, a businessman, former senator, and ex-member of parliament, has ridden the wave of popularity within the PNP and was last year catapulted as one of the party’s four vice-presidents, with the firebrand polling the most votes in an internal run-off. But Crawford has come under criticism for stinging comments against Vaz.

Both candidates have sought to reach out to the mainly farming constituents and paint themselves as out-of-the-box leaders who can engineer a sea change in the seat.

Among the litany of complaints raised, constituents have positioned deplorable roads, water shortages, and youth unemployment as sore points that they want the next member of parliament to address.