Dr. Fraser- Point of View
August 31, 2007

Monday is the day for Jamaica

Next Monday, September 3, Jamaicans will go to the polls. The ruling People’s National Party is seeking a fifth consecutive term of office, something that is unprecedented in Jamaican political life. Portia Simpson-Miller, who took the reins of power from Percival James Patterson, is at the same time attempting to get her own mandate from the people of Jamaica.{{more}} Public opinion polls predict a close contest, with a few percentage points separating the parties. In all of this, despite losing some support, Portia Simpson-Miller has maintained a favourability rating that is still about 7 percentage points higher than her rival Bruce Golding. Things seem set for a cliff hanger. There must, however, be concern within the ranks of the People’s National Party and its supporters. Recent elections in the Caribbean have not been favourable to the incumbents, as was seen in the British Virgin Islands and the Bahamas, and earlier in Jamaica, and in Antigua before that.

Recent reports point to a fall in the level of violence that one has come to associate with Jamaican elections. Earlier, Bruce Golding, in criticising the date selected for the holding of elections, had suggested that what he considered a long campaign was likely to lead to an increase in violence. BBC Caribbean news recently ran a piece where it quoted political ombudsman Bishop Herro Blair as stating that gang politics was over in Jamaica and that the back of garrison politics was broken. Let us hope it stays that way and that it is indeed so. In times like these, one always has to remember the dark days of 1980 when some 800 persons died in election violence.

With the elections appearing to be a closely contested one, some persons were fearing the worse, but something has definitely worked, so far at least. Bruce Golding has been at it for some time now, after having replaced former Jamaican Labour Party Leader, Edward Seaga. Golding had had an early brush with Seaga, and left the party, only to return later when the party seemed to have thought that he was the best person likely to lead the party to victory at the polls. Seaga, like Basdeo Panday, even when on his way out, had still wanted to control things from the background. Although still trailing Portia Simpson-Miller in personal popularity, Golding’s ratings have been continually improving. It is left to be seen if by September 3 it would have risen to the point where he would be able to wrest the seat of political power from Simpson-Miller.

Simpson Miller is a grassroots woman, who has endeared herself to the working people of Jamaica. It was this popularity from the rank and file that gave her the edge over her opponents. But she inherited a party that was somewhat divided after its internal elections. It was this which prevented her from calling early elections. Moreover, there were always those in middle class Jamaica, and in the corporate area, that were never convinced about her ability to govern the country in the manner they wanted. The rank and file, however, continued to support her and her style of politics. Simpson Miller has assembled a very competent team, getting back even D.K Duncan, who was one of the party’s shining lights during the days of Michael Manley. Has Jamaica had enough of PNP after 4 consecutive victories? What does Simpson Miller’s report card look like? Is the People’s National Party putting too much emphasis on its leader and not trumpeting the strength of its team?

Things have not really been working well recently for Lady Prime Minister. First, it was commonly believed that her opponent Bruce Golding out-performed her when they met for their election debate. But it was the passage of hurricane Dean that seemed to have tested her to the fullest. Analysts and opinion makers in Jamaica have been largely critical about what they considered her uncertainty in dealing with the crisis. This was evident when in a televised address after the passage of the hurricane the Prime Minister failed to address the issue of the election date, something that was mostly on the minds of Jamaicans. From the different reports, there appeared to have been some division in Cabinet about the new date, but things came to a critical point when the Ministry of Education put out a release about the start of the new school year, which implied a date for election, even before anything official came from the government.

There was also a lot of criticism about the declaration of a state of emergency in the wake of the passage of the hurricane. Part of the criticism was to the effect that there was some uncertainty about the reasons for it, about its extent and duration. Really, what all of this amounted to was a view that the nation was not kept fully informed at a time when the country was emerging from what could have been a major disaster. It was indeed a difficult period for the Prime Minister because all of this took place in a matter of days before the general elections were originally scheduled. The critics would have been looking for any little sign of a misstep. It is one thing to handle a crisis or disaster, but it is a different ball game to do this in the heat of an election campaign.

How the developments over the past two weeks would have coloured the thinking of the Jamaican electorate is left to be seen. There are obviously communities that are still suffering from the effects of the hurricane, where electricity, for instance, might as yet not have been restored and other deficiencies not as yet corrected. How are these people likely to respond? There are definitely some unknowns thrown into the picture. Would Portia’s popularity remain in all of this? Would they see someone with genuine concern or some one who seems unsure of herself at a very critical period in the history of the country?

I suspect that we are likely to have by weekend results of other opinion polls. What these will say we do not know, but in any event the contest is likely to remain a close one, and with only another two days left, a lot can happen. After all, a day in politics is a very long time.

In Trinidad and Tobago, it might be a horse of a different colour. Manning is expected to announce the date for elections at a special convention of the party. He goes into the campaign with oil money at his disposal and a divided opposition. The real test for him might be the extent of his victory. He would have to thank Basdeo Panday for committing political suicide, dividing the Opposition and destroying any credibility that it might have had. Manning is an enigma. He says and does the strangest things, but he has oil money to prop him up, even though what he does with it is questionable. By the way, have you seen a photograph of the new Prime Minister’s residence? WoW!