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Avoid the poisonous rancour of previous leadership battles

Monday, June 10, 2019

People's National Party (PNP) president and Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips knows all about leadership contests.

In 2006 he and two other PNP stalwarts lost a tense presidential race to Mrs Portia Simpson Miller when Mr P J Patterson announced his intention to retire from active politics. Dr Phillips lost despite having the support of most of the PNP's parliamentary group.

Two years later, after the PNP's surprise loss to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in 2007, Dr Phillips challenged Mrs Simpson Miller and lost yet again.

Now, as president of the PNP, he finds himself facing a contest coming, as has been expected for some time, from former general secretary of the party and Member of Parliament for Manchester Central Mr Peter Bunting.

After overseeing the by-election loss of Portland Eastern until recently considered a safe PNP seat and having decided to stay put, the 69-year-old Dr Phillips, an experienced, astute politician, would have been preparing himself.

On the other hand, having justifiably applauded Dr Phillips for his “outstanding” contribution to party and country, Mr Bunting's critique of the PNP president seems compelling.

Says Mr Bunting: “...[S]ince becoming president, he (Dr Phillips) has not implemented a single transformational initiative within the party, and is just not seen as the right person for this time.

“There is also a growing acceptance/resignation in the general public and amongst various stakeholder groups, including party membership and supporters, civil society, and private sector leadership that the PNP under Dr Peter Phillips's leadership cannot defeat the JLP in a general election. This will have negative consequences for voter support, organisational energy, and party/campaign funding.

“The above sentiment is confirmed by party, media, and private polling, which all show weakness or deterioration in Dr Phillips's standing...”

Mr Bunting could also have added that, despite the alarming spate of corruption scandals afflicting the current JLP Government, causing the dismissal of two Cabinet ministers, the PNP under Dr Phillips's leadership appears to have gained little or no traction.

A problem for Mr Bunting is that, with growing expectation of a parliamentary election in 2020, a year earlier than is constitutionally due, his challenge is likely to be seen by many Comrades as divisive, ill-timed, and ultimately selfish.

Such will be the resentment among a large body of Comrades that the unity he seeks to build could well prove elusive.

Also, while there is a growing feeling that, at age 69, Dr Phillips's time has passed, Mr Bunting is himself no spring chicken at age 58.

To what extent can Mr Bunting connect with an electorate, most of whom are much younger than he, including a growing number who have drifted away from the unyielding political loyalties of their parents?

All this in a context in which prime minister and entrenched leader of the JLP Mr Andrew Holness will only turn 47 next month.

Of course, with Mr Bunting's hat now in the ring there could well be other contenders coming forward ahead of the PNP's national conference in September.

Jamaicans will watch with interest as registered PNP delegates exercise their democratic right to decide on the person most suited to be their president.

Crucially, the PNP must make sure that the kind of poisonous rancour that marked the leadership battles of the past is kept to a bare minimum.