Peter Espeut | The handwriting is on the wall
On March 26, 2017 – almost exactly two years ago – Dr Peter David Phillips became the fifth president of the People’s National Party (PNP) by acclamation, but the handwriting was on the wall sometime before that.
Four months earlier (on November 28, 2016), the PNP, led by Portia Simpson Miller, was thrashed in the 16th local government elections; the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won nine of the municipal corporations, while the PNP won three; there was a tie in St Thomas, but the JLP won the popular vote, and so got to choose the mayor. The PNP had won all the councils in the 2012 local government elections.
The calls for the head of Portia Simpson Miller as party leader became deafening, and Phillips was the front-runner to replace her.
My column of December 16, 2016 (‘Rewarding failure: It’s Peter P’s turn’) pointed out that: “Egged on by Campaign Director Phillips and his surrogates, the PNP went into an early general election in February 2016 convinced they would win. Since then, the cry has been that their defeat was ‘unexpected’ and ‘surprising’, but in my view, conditions on the ground and the opinion polls (see my column of January 29, 2016) were totally misread by the PNP.
“Much of the blame for the PNP 2016 general election loss must be placed at the feet of Comrade Peter Phillips, with the many hats he wore. A dry speaker at best, he lacked the charisma of a Michael or a Portia, or the tactics of Percy, the consummate political strategist. What he has is the clinical approach of the academic, which served him well as the architect and implementer of the harsh IMF economic reforms; but he lacked the social empathy which would have connected with the suffering masses who needed to see a human face in the midst of the IMF austerity. He could balance the books, but did not convince people that he could ‘balance their lives’. ”
I ended the column by stating:
“Over the last few years, one of the major PNP propaganda lines has been that the JLP cannot run the country, and that only the PNP has the ability to lead Jamaica to progress. If this JLP government does a passable job, that line of argument will not be tenable.
“In 2020, Peter P. will be over 70 years old. I hope history will not remember him as the first leader of a major Jamaican political party never to win a general election.”
Since then, other commentators have agreed with me.
Today’s column was written before the results in yesterday’s by-election in Portland East are known; but whatever the result, the handwriting is again on the wall, but this time for Comrade Phillips.
If Damion Crawford – the most popular PNP personality at the moment – wins the seat (which the PNP has held for the last 30 years), all well and good; the party may feel that the win is in spite of the leader, and that a more charismatic leader will improve the party’s performance in a general election.
But if Crawford loses, the party leader will take most of the blame, and calls for his head will grow, and become deafening.
The big problem for the PNP is that at this time, there is no obvious charismatic contender for party leader.
A Crawford loss puts him out of contention. Paulwell – exuberant in his youth – is not unscathed by the Petrojam freeness, NetServ, and light-bulb scandals. Peter Bunting does not seem to have delegate support, and Ronnie Thwaites – a charismatic firebrand in his day – may now be past his prime
The PNP needs a new leader with an anti-corruption, anti-garrison agenda which will capture the hearts and minds of Jamaica’s uncommitted voters. At the moment, the PNP is still in Trafigura-defence mode.
No such leader is in sight.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.