RIGHT: In this October 2005 photograph, Joseph 'Bunny' Witter (left), the People's National Party (PNP) representative for West Kingston, greets Bruce Golding, the Jamaica Labour Party Member of Parliament for that constituency, during a JLP fund-raising event in Kingston. Witter says he expects to perform better against Golding in the upcoming general election.- Contributed
Daraine Luton, Sunday Gleaner Reporter
A foot-soldier-turned commander-in-chief and a captain promoted to general are now facing off on the political battleground. They are Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and Opposition Leader Bruce Golding. The former is seeking to retain the highest office in the land, and the other is striving to attain it. The stakes are high for both leaders.
But, while Simpson Miller and Golding battle each other as head of the two leading political parties, they face challenges in their own backyards: Golding in West Kingston and Simpson Miller in South West St. Andrew. While they are busy trying to bring their party electoral success nationally, rivals are pulling out all the stops to unseat them in their constituencies.
Meet Joseph 'Bunny' Witter, the People's National Party's (PNP) candidate for West Kingston, and Garnett Reid, the man who carries the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) flag in South West St. Andrew. Both men are running in garrison constituencies considered 'already won', but with the promise of a fairer electoral system, they believe they have a fighting chance.
Reid, for example, believes if the system affords one vote for one person, and voters are not in-timidated by strong-arm men, he can spring an upset victory on Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller.
Similarly, Joseph 'Bunny' Witter believes that with a level playing field in the traditional JLP seat, the PNP may be able to achieve more than an increased majority there.
"It is a tough seat, but nothing is cast in stone," Witter said of West Kingston, a seat held by the JLP since 1962, and which the party has lost only twice since the granting of Universal Adult Suffrage in 1944. Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga held the seat for 43 years before resigning in 2005. In his last outing, Seaga polled 1l,251 votes to the PNP's Sydney Errar's 2,099.
In the 2005 by-election, Golding trounced Witter, polling 8,503 votes to Witter's 1,181, in an election in which 55 per cent of the electorate voted. Despite the huge defeat then, Witter says he will not roll over and play dead. "If you go in as a loser, it makes no sense you start. You have to go in there motivating your people," he tells The Sunday Gleaner.
He, however, notes that while many other candidates on election night may be biting their nails in anticipation of a victory, he may be watching the numbers to see how well the party performs in comparison to previous elections. "We will be looking to see by how many we would increase the margin. That is the most that we look out for; anything else would be a surprise," Witter says.
Reid, too, has not attached great importance to winning. The JLP has not won St. Andrew South West since the rise of Portia Simpson Miller there in 1976. "Politics is not always about winning," Reid says, "But while winning is important, representation is also important."
South West St. Andrew is one of the strongest PNP seats. Since its formation in 1959, it has voted for a JLP Member of Parliament three times, but not since Simpson Miller entered the constituency in 1976. In those polls, she, a first-time contestant, overturned a JLP majority of 3,241 to win on a PNP ticket. Then, she posted 13,584 votes to the JLP's Joseph McPherson's 4,376 and the strong JLP seat was now PNP country.
By the 1980 election, when the JLP swept 41 of the 60 seats, Simpson Miller increased her majority to 17,192, while Tom Tavares-Finson, who represented the JLP, polled 4,524. An inexplicable 105 per cent of registered voters went to the polls then. Reid calls it "the grandmother of all garrisons and the breeding ground for criminals in Jamaica".
He argues that the constituency has not been properly represented and despite South West St. Andrew being strong PNP country, there are many persons there who want to see the back of Simpson Miller. "I am in there with great optimism and I will give it my best shot. After 30 years, I am hoping that the people will give the JLP representative a chance. There are thousands of Labourites still living there, but they are afraid to come out and vote," Reid claims.
In the 2002 General Election, Reid received just 618 votes to Simpson Miller's 9,716. He lost the election, and, subsequently, two sisters, who had helped him in his unsuccessful bid for the seat.
"I don't think democracy is alive and well in South West St. Andrew, but I don't think it (going up against Simpson Miller) is a waste of time. I am going to give it an even better shot than I gave it the last time," he says.
So convinced is Reid that he stands a chance in this 'done-deal' seat, he is spending approximately $3.5 million on campaigning for an opportunity to get to Gordon House.
One of the many things, he says, that gives him hope, is because "the (voters') list is now cleaned up and a lot of eyes will be watching that constituency keenly ... If I lose, I would love to lose fairly. I don't want to lose dishonestly. I would like one man, one vote," Reid says.
Like Reid, Witter is confident that a cleaner electoral system may mean better results.
"Under a clean electoral system, there are many seats that you might believe were safe (to a party or candidate), that can swing," Witter says.
He adds: "What has been happening over the years is that people don't get the chance to even vote. By the time they reach the polling station, you hear that people already voted for you. Now that the live body has to vote, anything can happen. Those who have migrated and those who have died can't vote, and it gives you a better fighting chance," Witter reasons. "Now, any seat can be up for grabs, any number can play. Even some PNP areas you have to be very cautious with it. It is not just JLP areas alone," Witter reasons.