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Portia’s election no-go

Published:Thursday | November 26, 2015 | 12:00 AMMartin Henry, Contributor
Cartoon for Monday, November 16, 2015 Andrew Holness, Portia Simpson Miller, Phillip Phinn
Martin Henry

It was a dark moment in Black River last Sunday night.

Comrades had poured into the St Elizabeth capital, the first town in Jamaica to have electric light, in 1893, for the meeting before the Big Meeting when the date would be announced. They left stunned.

The comrade leader's unidentified Master had touched her and quietly whispered in her ear, "My daughter, it is not time to go." But that could mean it is time to go.

Portia's pullback at later than the eleventh hour from what was clearly an election campaign, with soundings coming from other leaders in the party for a 2015 election, has to be one of the riskiest political decisions ever taken by a party leader. The reasons for not going which were fed to the faithful in Black River were like pouring water into broken cisterns.

Despite the cantankerous brayings of the business class against an election in the Christmas season, on six previous occasions, out of 16 past general elections, it has been demonstrated that the Yuletide and elections can peacefully coexist.

One is never certain who the business voices are speaking for in the very diverse community. Certain categories of business benefit greatly from election campaigns. Just think of media and transportation and food and beverage, and T-shirt printers and vuvuzela sellers, road fixers and gully cleaners. And with an election combined with Christmas, they enjoy a double whopper.

In a peaceful election campaign with money flowing like water, why can't businesses just get on with business and stop behaving as if they specially own the political process and the Government? There isn't even any risk of any ideological shift and change of course if the government changes.


deep maternal empathy

The Christmas that Comrades wanted, having been fired up for it for weeks, was victory at the polls before it gets too late, not ham and sorrel with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

Portia Simpson Miller suddenly developed a deep maternal empathy for newly registered voters, particularly those who have just come of age and should not be disenfranchised. "The youth of Jamaica," she told the Black River party crowd, "should be given an equal opportunity to have a say in the way their country is governed."

We don't know the age composition of the 37,000 newly registered voters. We do know that youth 18-24 make up the highest proportion of those who tell pollsters they won't vote. We do know that there was an unusual rush of people to register before the September 30 cut-off date.

Not only has the ECJ cleaned up the political system so that elections are no longer physical tribal wars, the bipartisan agency has given us continuous voter registration every working day of the year. A rolling voters' list is published every May and November to include new registrations done up to two months before publication of the list. A six-month-old list is current, very current. And the truth is, any election date is going to exclude the most recently registered.

One thing more we know. The Jamaican electorate votes out governments that they have grown tired of, not vote in the Opposition party because they are pleased with its promises. Surveying international trends in political behaviour, I have been suggesting that an era of one-term governments and lower victory margins may have been ushered in for us with the ushering out of the one-term JLP Government in 2011. We'll see. But the rush to register should bring no comfort to the party incumbent in Government. The JLP has its completely non-altruistic reasons for wanting these new votes included.

So apart from the touch of her Master, what will determine the right time for the prime minister to call the election to her party's advantage? We know that governing parties call early preterm elections either to avert defeat from further slippage or to seize an advantage that presents itself. We have seen no particular spike-inducing advantage since the parties were polled in dead heat with low voter support in September. Soon after this, the PNP took to the campaign trail.


run wid it

Drawing sudden brakes now is signalling that the party is judging the slippage to be so bad that unless a build-back can be achieved, things don't look very good for electoral victory.

But what could give the governing party the desired bounce in the next few months, since "the hour is at hand"? People are hurting from economic hardship, a constant of Jamaican life since forever, but easy to blame on an incumbent Government. The IMF relaxation of the primary surplus target could allow greater responsible public spending, not run-wid-it electioneering spending. The primary surplus means that revenues are exceeding spending not taking into account interest payments on debt.

Cynical Jamaicans who may have already made up their minds are masters of 'nyam dem out and vote dem out'. The, leader of the JLP in Opposition who has been promoting this strategy, should remember that the "same knife weh jook sheep, jook goat". And the seasoned people do not need his foot-in-mouth advice.

Even among PNP party faithfuls, the Black River let-down is going to be hard to rebuild. The accumulated weight of negatives like the dead babies issue can only get bigger, not smaller, with time.

One of the biggest assets to the PNP for election victories past can be broadly described as the 'Seaga factor', a combination of leadership conflicts within the JLP and public distrust outside stoked by the PNP. Andrew Holness' leadership of the party had begun to appear incurably infected with the Seaga factor. But if the leadership of the party can shake the factor, the PNP could be in even bigger trouble.

The party president's intention "to do the reaping at the right time in the New Year", and the expectation that "the party will win the election when it is called at the right time because the PNP has been working in the interest of Jamaicans" is really very politically naive coming from such a seasoned pol. Political history, our own and others', is strewn with a multitude of cases of one planting and another reaping and cases of the 'ingratitude' of the people. A defeated Bustamante called Jamaicans "Judas people". And a stunned D.K. Duncan on the night of the 1980 general election that handed power to the JLP after the heady years of democratic socialism, bawled out, "What happen to black people vote?"

Portia continues to await her Master's 'go' touch. One good thing about this is that she will be obliged to humbly accept the election outcome, lose or win, as "thy will be done". Her last prophecy-inspired 'go' based on the mystery number 7 for the 2007 election turned out to be 'pack your bags and go'. But we'll see what 2016 brings. Practice may improve accuracy.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and