Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer
Declaring that a leadership challenge is good for democracy in the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), some commentators are welcoming the announcement of Audley Shaw's bid to lead the organisation.
Political historian Arnold Bertram, who served in Parliament with Shaw in the 1990s, said the impending challenge is a significant event as it signals a rare attempt at democracy in the JLP. He noted that the party has not had much success with democratic politics over the 70 years of its existence.
"The two most successful leaders, Bustamante (1943-74) and Seaga (1974-2005), were both self-confessed dictators, who recognised the importance of the coercive, paramilitary arm of the party to deal with all challenges," said Bertram.
He charged that Bustamante's paramilitary machinery resided in the Bustamante Industrial Trade and Seaga's was based in Tivoli Gardens. "The other three leaders, Hugh Shearer, Bruce Golding and Holness faced three different scenarios in their much shorter tenures."
According to Bertram, after Shearer's loss in the 1972 general election, Seaga challenged him in 1974 with the full might of the 'mother of all garrisons'. "It was enough for Shearer to lose all appetite for the top job," argued the veteran politician.
Added Bertram: "Golding's could only emerge after (the people of) Tivoli Gardens ditched Seaga but could not remain once international law enforcement humbled that community."
According to Bertram, Holness dalliance with authentic democracy is getting in the way of the JLP in spite of the pronouncements of the virtues of democracy that is being employed to oust him. "There are those who want him to reconnect with the old style of politics and teach Audley a lesson," he argued.
Bertram is of the view that given the JLP's record, Shaw's popularity and financial support are not the only critical factors in the forthcoming showdown.
"If Holness reverts to his pre-democratic phase, given the support of the coercive power that resides among his allies in St Catherine, it could well be a pyrrhic victory for either side," predicted Bertram.
He said the options that are open to Holness is to continue with democratic politics, which renders him vulnerable in the JLP, or reconnect with the social forces he knew before his democratic phase.
Political commentator Shalman Scott believes that Shaw's timing is spot on. "The timing for the challenge is almost perfect," said Scott. "With the announcement coming at such a short time before the conference, will serve to stave off the possibility of a fall-out that accompanies a protracted campaign."
Scott suggested that with general election constitutionally due in 2016, it give the JLP three clear years to recover to face the electorate. "The election should provide the kind of leadership for healing to take place if that becomes necessary," said Scott.
For political scientist Dr Hume Johnson, challenges to political leadership inside political parties are normal, expected and justified responses to electoral defeat, and perceptions among party delegates of weakness and dismal performance on the part of the incumbent.
"Although Holness has solid ideas, he comes to leadership with a vastly different approach than his predecessors and could transform the image of the JLP, he has never truly won the confidence of his party; his rise to, and claims on leadership has not been wholly supported and respected by members of his own party," argued Johnson.
She said, however, that the situation became more challenging for Holness as he had never truly asserted his power, or managed to bring consensus and unity within this fractious organisation. "Despite claims to the contrary, the JLP has never truly been tolerant of democracy inside its political organisation, has consistently failed to gel around its selected leader and so there is always a vacuum which begs for challenges."
Given the party's undemocratic culture, Johnson argued that a leadership challenge is not necessarily to be seen as an indicator of the JLP suddenly becoming more democratic, or wants to elect a leader that can bring about consensus.
"The JLP remains a fledging organisation that requires urgent transformation in areas such as its communications style, its image, organisational skills and ability to gain the confidence of the Jamaican electorate," she said.
Richard 'Dickie' Crawford also welcomes the challenge. "It is a good thing, anything that can possibly move us from the political dead end that we are travelling on, is objectively an opportunity that should not be missed. It is a hope for stimulating meaningful political change," he said
Crawford said Jamaica's political system is dying and in need of intensive care. "We can clearly see, from bureaucracy, crime, injustice, energy costs, poor management and accountability," he said.
According to Crawford, the JLP has proven to be a very poor, relatively non-existent Opposition whilst the PNP government has squandered its historic 2011 mandate so far and has recently resorted to being arrogant and showing some contempt for people who just voted for them.
He said if the JLP understands this, then Shaw's challenge for the leadership could be a door opener to needed necessary change. "The JLP will have to reinvent itself, though, and become relevant for the 21st century," said Crawford.
"It will have to exorcise the criminal and political demons from Tivoli, Western Kingston and elsewhere, supporting a real commission of enquiry into this matter and politically educate its party to become a new entity, ending the opposition-party mentality only," he added.