Guided Democracy or Palace Coup?
Published: Sunday | July 20, 2008

"Ladies and gentlemen! It's the big rematch all Jamaica has been waiting for since March 2006 - the battle for the undisputed leadership of the People's National Party, Round Two! In the St Andrew South West corner wearing yellow, is the defending champion, Portia 'Grass-roots Girl' Simpson Miller! In the St Andrew East Central corner wearing traditional orange, is the number one ranked contender, Peter 'Dr Drumblair Establishment' Phillips! Let's get ready to rrruuummmbbbllleee!"

That's how boxing fans would frame Peter Phillips' announcement that he will challenge Portia Simpson Miller for the leadership of the PNP at the party's annual conference in September. Some see this public PNP divide as an opening for Prime Minister Bruce Golding to call a snap election on the dual citizenship issue between now and September. But considering what happened to the last prime minister who scheduled an election during the hurricane season, that would be a very risky gambit. Man plan and God wipe out.

With the Abe Dabdoub dual citizen appeal set for November 24, this is probably as good a time as any for Dr Phillips to make his bid. Better to focus his efforts on the definitely scheduled September PNP conference than to keep waiting on a snap election that might never come.

Mrs Simpson Miller is the first incumbent PNP leader to be challenged since the party was formed in 1938. And the only serious JLP leadership challenge in its 65 years of existence was Edward Seaga's ousting of Hugh Shearer in 1974. Back then Shearer did not put up much of a fight, and quietly resigned when loud rumblings of dissent were heard about his stewardship.

New leader

But then trade unionist at heart, Shearer was always a reluctant politician. When MPs voted to choose the new prime minister after Sir Donald Sangster's sudden death in 1967, Shearer was widely thought to have spoilt his ballot in the first round. Only in the second round did he vote for himself, ultimately becoming Jamaica's new leader by 16 votes to 15.

Simpson Miller seems made of far more ambitious stuff, and is unlikely to concede the PNP leadership without a spirited defence of her crown. From a democratic point of view, this is as it should be. The people should decide, not the eminences grises. Let the combatants shake hands and come out fighting in a clean and fair contest, with no hitting below the belt.

Past party heads, Hugh Shearer excepted, have remained in office until they got too old or too ill, or simply tired of the job. Neither Alexander Bustamante, Norman Manley, Michael Manley, Edward Seaga, nor P.J. Patterson faced a serious challenge while party leader.

Such a 'mine forever' mentality cannot be healthy for democracy. From this point of view, let's hope Phillip's throwing down the gauntlet to Simpson Miller marks a new era in Jamaican politics. Perhaps from now both rank and file will realise that party leaders do not permanently own their jobs, and can be democratically replaced if the situation so demands. Had this been the case previously, Edward Seaga would not have been able to hold Jamaican democracy to ransom while leading the JLP to four straight general election defeats.

PNP aristocracy

Party leader challenges and changes are not uncommon in mature democracies. But they usually come when the incumbent is clearly unpopular in the polls. Recent surveys show Simpson Miller is generally preferred by the public to Phillips. So in a sense this challenge is a bit a of a palace coup attempt by the PNP aristocracy.

How will all the behind-the-scene Machiavellian manipulations play out? Just who is on whose side? Where does General Secretary Peter Bunting stand? How much of a factor will class dynamics be? And the overarching question remains: what do the Jamaican people - and in this case particularly the PNP delegates - want in a leader?

The general first impression was that Phillips must have taken his soundings and got the big hitters on his side before making his bid, and so should be a shoo-in. Insiders point to prominent individuals like Kenneth 'Skeng don' Black switching allegiance from Portia to Peter.

But how it will all play on the ground? Whatever the criticisms levelled at her by the upper socio-economic and academic echelons, Simpson Miller remains popular with grass-roots PNP followers. How will they react if 'the people's choice' is perceived to have been pushed out by 'the big men and women of influence'?

One school of thought, however, argues that party leaders should be chosen by those who know them well close-up. 'Come see me and come live with me' are two different things.

Guided or not, democracy must have its way. Whoever prevails, the PNP will unite around a single leader. And a stronger opposition must be ultimately good for Jamaican democracy.

Many feel the media are being unfair to Simpson Miller, and especially accuse the Observer newspaper of almost carrying on a personal vendetta against her. Its cartoons, they argue, criticise her every utterance, and its headlines highlight only her negatives. A recent Anderson poll which showed her with a seven point net positive rating, compared to minus 20 in March, was headlined 'Portia average'. This doesn't seem fair. On the other hand, some say Simpson Miller can hardly expect flattering media coverage after her televised attacks on the press during the last general election. Same knife stick sheep stick goat.

Public insiders

And what of the public PNP insiders? Ronnie Thwaites seems fairly neutral, and Lambert Brown, as expected, is backing Portia. But their fellow comrades Trevor Munroe, Dickie Crawford, Michael Burke, Beverley Manley and Garnet Roper express a plainly stated preference for Dr Phillips.

Incidentally, this list makes the Drumblairite dominance of our media quite clear. All the above are official PNP party members, party activists or overt PNP sympathisers. To the best of my knowledge, the only current JLP member who writes a newspaper column or hosts a radio show is Prudence Kidd-Deans. (Personal disclaimer: I, myself, have never been a member of any political party).

Political affiliations

There's nothing wrong with media practitioners having known political affiliations, though these make it difficult, if not impossible, to be truly objective. Whether consciously or unconsciously, officially connected biases tend to seep out.

After the leadership debate during last year's general election, for instance, some comrade commentators insisted that Portia had outperformed Bruce, despite almost unanimous public consent to the contrary.

You often hear talk about Jamaica being 'PNP' country, though that's hard to square with the JLP having won the last three national elections. It's seems incontestably obvious, though, that we have a PNP media.

Yet, surely, a healthy democracy should have a balanced press.

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