KINGSTON, Jamaica – In Jamaica, following three months of often bitter, mudslinging campaigning between incumbent People National Party (PNP) leader, Dr. Peter Phillips, and Peter Bunting the party’s member of parliament for Central Manchester, Phillips was reelected by a razor-thin margin of 76 votes in internal party elections held on September 7.
The fact that votes of some 93 percent of the PNP delegates were pretty much divided between the two men with Phillips receiving 1.427 votes to Bunting’s 1,351, is indicative that the party founded by National Hero Norman Washington Manley in 1938 is blatantly, and possibly irreparable, divided.
Phillips surely feels vindicated as he celebrates the retention of his leadership, but the political basket he has been given to carry now has many gigantic holes which he may never be able to seal before all his support runs out.
NOT A MANDATE
If Philips had secured a decisive victory it would have been assurance his mandate as party leader was strengthened. But him being the incumbent leader eeking out only a 2.7 percent margin win over a man who challenged his leadership just three months ago, is definitely neither a mandate, nor an expression of confidence in his leadership.
In the often turbulent world of politics some people find success as charismatic and influencing leaders, others as professionals or technocrats who successfully implement the mission of a political party as administrators if the party is elected. Others just fade away as they become irrelevant.
Throughout his political career which began in 1989 Phillips has proved himself as a sound technocrat. He served the PNP well as its general secretary, and in ministerial portfolios of health, transportation and works, national security and finance in various PNP administrations from 1995 to 2016. However, his quest as the political leader of the party has been far less spectacular. He lost to former Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller in his first bid for PNP leader in 2006, when several pundits predicted his victory. Not content with Simpson Miller as party leader he renewed his challenge in 2008 and again was soundly defeated by Mama Portia.
When Simpson Miller retired as PNP leader and Opposition Leader in 2017, it appeared Phillips would face a contest from leadership aspirants including Bunting for the party leadership. But the party hierarchy, thought to be influenced by former party leader and prime minister, Percival J. Patterson, rallied behind Phillips claiming “his time has come” after his failed attempts for leadership.
But a large percentage of PNP supporters and party delegates have expressed their dissatisfaction with the charismatically challenged party leader. He has not proven himself to be an astute political campaign strategist. Under his leadership the PNP lost two by-elections in formerly PNP held seats. Neither has he at age-69 proven himself to be a formidable opponent to the much younger, 47-year old Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) leader and prime minister, Andrew Holness.
It was after the PNP lost what seemed an easy-to-win by-election in Portland that Bunting decided to challenge Phillips for leadership. Bunting sensed the pulse of some 84 percent of Jamaicans, according to pollsters, who believe Phillips will be unable to defeat the JLP under Holness if a general election were to be held anytime soon.
Perhaps Bunting’s narrow defeat was due to his delay in challenging Phillips for the party leadership. Throwing his hat in the ring earlier could have had a different result as recent polls indicated the majority of Jamaicans, particularly younger voters under age 45, which represent the majority of registered Jamaican voters. supported his candidacy.
OPPORTUNITY FOR HOLNESS
Now with the PNP obviously badly fractured, it would not be surprising if Holness seizes the advantage of the PNP’s mess to call an early snap-general election before an election is constitutionally due in 2021.
To defy the polls and lead the PNP to the Herculean task of retaking the government, Phillips must now seek to: reunite the party around him; motivate the youth who are uninspired by his leadership; convince voters the PNP has a better plan to combat persistent crime and healthcare problems than the incumbent JLP government; maintain the economic gains recently made, and has a formidable plan to distribute these economic gains to alleviate poverty still being experienced by too many Jamaicans.
MAYBE TWO YEARS TOO LATE
But, unfortunately, Phillips and the PNP maybe two years too late. What Phillips need to do now as reelected party leader is what he should have been doing since 2017. If Andrew Holness seizes the current division within the PNP as an opportunity to gain a new 5-year term the title pf prime minister could elude Phillips. And, Bunting and other PNP aspirants could be again jockeying to be party and opposition leader in 2020.