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Can Portia be Jamaica's Lula?

Published:Sunday | January 8, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Jamaica's Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller with Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva after the opening ceremony of the second conference of African intellectuals and the diaspora in Brazil in July 2006.- File
Kevin O'Brien  Chang, Contributor

The global financial recession is battering incumbents everywhere. In the last two months, the governments of Slovenia, Croatia, St Lucia and Spain have been booted, those in Guyana and Russia lost their 50 per cent majorities, and those in Greece and Italy resigned to avoid electoral humiliation. Only strong commodity-export economies like New Zealand have bucked the trend.

Every English-speaking Caribbean election since 2010 has seen a big anti-incumbent swing. 

Date      Country       Swing    Result

Apr-10    St Kitts       7.6      Majority reduced to one
May-10   Trinidad     13.9      Lost        
Dec-10    St Vincent    8.2    Majority reduced to one
Nov-11    St Lucia        7.2    Lost
Nov-11    Guyana       12.0    Lost majority
Dec-11    Jamaica        7.4    Lost

Average    9.4

Furthermore, Don Anderson, the only pollster to accurately predict the 2002 and 2007 general elections (and who did so again in 2011, though not declaring a landslide), consistently showed the PNP ahead. So the JLP's December 29 loss was no surprise in big-picture terms.

Governments can't share everything with the public. But we never heard a convincing explanation as to why the JLP prematurely called an election not constitutionally due for another year, despite facing likely defeat.

The Labourites then threw fuel on their own pyre by running an arrogantly out-of-touch campaign. Polls showed voters' main concerns were unemployment and crime, with 84 per cent in favour of party leaders walking together through garrisons. Yet the JLP ran no ads addressing these issues. Instead, it highlighted minor matters like Trafigura and attacked the opposition leader, which merely garnered sympathy for her.

The biggest difference between the two parties was Portia Simpson Miller, without whom the PNP would likely have lost. Whatever her faults, she is the only politician from either side who 'feels the pain' of the Jamaican masses and articulates their fundamental concerns.

JEEP may appear impractical on paper, but working-class Jamaicans see it as a symbol of Portia's concern for them. Ads about her 'needing papers' mean nothing to the masses, who rightly reason that leaders can always get help on policy matters, but not in feeling sympathy for the less fortunate. They don't care what you know, unless they know you care.

The PNP confounded pre-election speculation by outadvertising its opponent, likely ran a superior get-out-the-vote election-day ground game, and ushered an impressive slate of young candidates into Parliament. It also claimed to have outenumerated the JLP since 2007, a fact Labourites seemed to realise only after being defeated.

Shouldn't you check such things before boasting about being the best-organised party in the English-speaking Caribbean, and not being in danger of losing seats?

The JLP might have overcome the global anti-incumbent trend with a decent campaign. Despite the lopsided 42-21 seat count, it only lost the popular vote 53.4 per cent to 46.6 per cent. This represented a 7.4 percentage-point swing from the last election, less than the recent English-speaking Caribbean average of 9.4 per cent, and far less than the 20 per cent in Spain, 20 per cent in Slovenia, 16 per cent in Croatia, and 22 per cent in Russia.

So by world financial crisis vote-them-out standards, this was a mild defeat. Which proves, perhaps, that the JLP handled the global downturn better than most governments, and may have saved Jamaica from a Greece-like collapse into chaos. What ultimately sunk the Labourites was sheer arrogance. Again and again, you heard, "Dem need fi learn how fi talk to people!"

Andrew Holness remains our second most popular politician - he polls far ahead of Peter Phillips, Peter Bunting, Audley Shaw, Chris Tufton and Bobby Montague - and should logically remain opposition leader.

flawed structure

While he is a rare combination of intellectual and emotional intelligence, this campaign was possibly a well-needed learning curve.

The scattershot Labour campaign suggested too many cooks in the broth, and that Mr Holness needs a more focused brain trust. The JLP's clearly flawed organisational structure also needs revamping, perhaps with the aid of management consultants.

To some, the JLP's single biggest campaign mistake was not telling the country Mr Holness' almost electorally perfect back story - poor boy who grew up in a Spanish Town board house with his great-grandmother and grandmother and civil servant mother, who has a farmer father, went to a 'ghetto' high school, worked his way through university as a teacher, and did charity work before going into politics.

His first personal political defeat might make him a bit more humble, and aware that he needs to revisit his roots. He should also ponder his 'free-market' ideological fervour. Did thundering "we must remember that by the sweat of thy brow thou shall eat bread" win or lose him votes? Which do most Jamaicans prefer - learning how to fish, or being given fish?

As someone 'from the bowels of the people', he must reconnect the JLP with working-class Jamaicans. Many of the urban poor, justifiably or not, see the Labour Party as a rich uptown party unconcerned with the less fortunate. This cannot be completely true, as JLP crowds always contain plenty of 'roots' people, but it's a quite common perception that Mr Holness has to change.

First, he needs to find out exactly what people think of his party. A good start would be listening to a focus group of on-the-ground journalists. They have many stories to tell.

Portia Simpson Miller is a survivor who has taken more than her share of abuse - the personally insulting Observer Clovis cartoons are an affront to decent journalism - and emerged stronger than ever. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warns of a gloomy global 2012, and there is less chance of social upheaval in Jamaica under 'Mama P' than any other leader. We are lucky to have someone like her in 'the system' speaking for the people, and not outside it attacking our entire structure of governance.

Mrs Simpson Miller should study the successes of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's first working-class president. A reformed radical leftist-turned-pragmatist, Lula campaigned centre-left but governed centre-right, producing an economic boom that made him the most popular leader in his country's history.

He maintained Brazil's relationship with the IMF, even paying off the debt two years early. By continuing his predecessor's fiscally disciplined macroeconomic policies, he stabilised inflation and eliminated the budget deficit. Crucially, Lula also stood up to private-sector special interests by cutting subsidies, tax breaks and special treatment by state banks, while cracking down on patronage.

He also softened the face of the government, and implemented far-reaching social programmes like the Bolsa Familia (family allowance). This gives small monthly direct payments preferentially to female heads of poor households, on the condition that they do the 'right things' such as sending children to school and getting them vaccinated. The extremely poor get an unconditional basic benefit.

There are no cash handouts, as allowances are disbursed through debit cards via a central authority that bypasses local politicians. Anyone officially under the poverty line can apply with no political strings attached, and all names and amounts given are published on a website. Transparency and accountability are crucial to its success.

Bolsa Familia contributed greatly to steep declines in Brazil's poverty and inequality rates. With a few tweaks in the right direction, PATH could become something similar. Or how about a new-model JEEP - the Jamaica Emergency Enhancement Programme?

Lula once said, "I don't want a proprietorial state, or an interventionist state, but I do want the state to have the capacity to regulate ... when it's necessary in order to defend the interests of the people ... this is how I conceive of the state: it mobilises, oversees, regulates."

What finer template could Portia adopt than the man Barack Obama called "the most popular politician on earth"?

Kevin O'Brien Chang is a businessman and author. Email feedback to and