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Editorial: What of the PM’s Great Retreat?

Published:Tuesday | November 24, 2015 | 12:00 AM

By keeping the country guessing about the date of the general election, while seeking to determine - with divine help, she says - when would be the most propitious time for her People's National Party (PNP), Prime Minister Portia Simpson employed an advantage of office that was not alien to her predecessors. Indeed, it is an approach not unfamiliar to countries with a similar Westminster-style parliamentary democracy.

Yet, we question the prime minister's tactic, including seeming to take the country to the brink of a poll, then pulling back, which provides an opportunity for a renewed debate on the efficacy of a fixed election date, to which many countries with political systems similar to Jamaica's have transitioned, and which the opposition leader, Andrew Holness, says he supports.

Constitutionally, a general election is not an absolute requirement in Jamaica for another 16 months. But the Constitution does give the prime minister, at any time, the power to dissolve the Parliament, causing the electorate to vote for a new legislature. That usually means a period of campaigning by political parties.

In recent months, Mrs Simpson Miller's party has been signalling its preparation for such an event. It has been in full campaign mode, with its spokesmen, including the PM, more than hinting that Jamaicans would vote before year end. It apparently hopes to refresh its mandate ahead of a new round of its economic reform programme, being implemented under the tutelage of the International Monetary Fund.

But the PNP has been faced with pockets of internal dissension over candidate selection, as well as the public furore over the deaths of 19 preterm babies at two hospitals and the mishandling of the whole affair by former health minister, Fenton Ferguson. These may have contributed to Mrs Simpson Miller's decision to retreat from the vote, although less charitable observers may see it as evidence of vacillation.

Notably, though, the leader of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, William Mahfood, has welcomed the decision, believing that an election in the Christmas period would be a bad thing. Generally, people in enterprise abhor elections on the fear that they breed uncertainty and induce economic malaise. Which, perhaps, is true. But it probably says more about the maturity of the private sector and of self-fulfilling prophecies. After all, the days of deep ideological schisms have long ended and those of election-related violence have retreated greatly.

And on the face of it, economic policy options are quite limited. So, while it may not be quite there as yet, Jamaica may be en route to elections becoming, with some prods from the private sector, boringly normal and routine.

But things, for now, are what they are. And here is where Mrs Simpson Miller and her party have not helped.

While prime ministers are in the unique position to determine election dates, they are expected to exercise that power to the advantage of the country rather than the advancement of the interest of their parties. Encouraging speculation is one thing. Engaging a full-blown campaign and creating anxieties, only to pull back, is quite another.

We suspect that substantial amounts of money have been spent, energies excited, and much legislative and ministerial time wasted. The process will be repeated. It's worth debating if prime ministers should have those powers in such absolute terms.