No appetite for a change of Government

No appetite for a change of Government

Raulston Nembhard

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

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There seems to be hardly any doubt that the next general election will be held this year. Prime Minister Andrew Holness has given notice that by July 28 the states of emergency will end, as he will not be conducting a general election with any in place. This is the clearest signal yet that the country will go to the polls this year, perhaps in August, to avoid any interference with the start of the new school year.

Whatever the date, both the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) are getting ready for what will be a short election period. People do not have any appetite for a drawn-out fight, certainly not in the middle of a pandemic. The novel coronavirus still poses an existential threat to life and livelihoods. It is in the context of the most dramatic shock to the economic and social life of the country that we have ever experienced in recent times that the elections will be held. There is hardly any doubt that this will be in the minds and hearts of Jamaicans as they contemplate any change in how they are being governed.

The most important challenge facing the PNP is to convince the people of Jamaica that the JLP is unworthy of a second term and that they will do a better job if given the reins of power. In this challenge they have an uphill struggle. Prior to the COVID-19 assault the country was showing all the signs of a return to robust economic health. The unemployment figures had fallen as more and more Jamaicans were able to find jobs. The macroeconomic indices were trending in the right direction and fiscal sustainability had grown appreciably as the country's debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio continued to fall.

Those who are convinced that the Government has done a fairly good job with the economy will not be too disposed to rock the boat at this time. Under Minister of Finance Dr Nigel Clarke and Prime Minister Holness they believe the economy is in as safe hands as it can be. While they may give some credit to the PNP for holding the fort under the heavy strictures that were imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), I do not sense an appetite for a changing of the guard at this time.

If Holness should be returned for a second term there is a mountain of economic challenges that his Government will encounter. Foremost among these is setting the country on a robust growth trajectory which, before COVID-19, was proving to be very elusive. Although it is true that the virus gravely affected the growth agenda, this cannot be used as an excuse for getting the growth targets that the country desperately needs. His Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation before the epidemic had been lethargic in this regard. It must not be forgotten that just before the pandemic struck we were registering growth at around one per cent and prognosis from the reputable authorities were not exhilarating.

This, too, will be the premier issue with which the PNP will have to wrestle should it be blessed with forming the Government. The challenge before the PNP is to come up with clear, workable strategies that will convince the people that they can do a better job than the JLP in the post-COVID-19 economic and social recovery of Jamaica. This will not be an easy task.

The choice before the people cannot be clearer: To have a steady and proven set of hands at the wheel or to trust a new driver with trembling hands who has shown a penchant for reckless driving in the past.

Another mountain before the PNP is to convince the people not to reward the JLP for the sterling work they have performed in fighting the coronavirus. This issue will be uppermost in the mind of the electorate. Many seem content that the Government has done a sterling job in fighting this pandemic. Prime Minister Holness, primarily, has shown that he is not afraid to make the tough decisions that are needed to combat the virus. Unlike others in other jurisdictions, he has not politicised the issue and has shown that he is accountable to the people at all times. In fact, Jamaica has done better than some of its richest partners, including the United States, in standing up to the virus with competence, bravery, and compassion.

I do not believe it will be lost on the Jamaican people what the Administration has done. Many will be hard put to place them out to pastures after doing such a great job, even as the fight is not ended. We are still in the middle of the pandemic and still need steady hands at the wheel. Because of the sterling work that this Government has done the few criticisms emanating from the Opposition have come across as vapid, unnecessary carping. The few criticisms of PNP spokespersons have come across as griping. It is my view that the subject will hardly garner much debate in the upcoming election.

What will gain more traction for the PNP is the Achilles heel of any Government of Jamaica; namely, the crime monster. There is much in this for any Opposition party to criticise an incumbent Government about, but the Opposition must be aware that they too have been at the wicket much longer that the JLP has been, and they are distinguished only by how little runs they have scored against this scourge.

Holness's Government will have some vulnerability in their use of states of emergency to fight crime. I believe the Opposition is on good ground for criticising the inordinate use of these powers in crime-fighting. The risk is that these powers were becoming normalised and this should never be the case for powers that should have a short shelf life. Furthermore, there is no great evidence that they have been instrumental in keeping murders under control, as some of us warned. By and large they have been a colossal failure.

If Holness should win he should rethink this strategy. I believe the intention to see crime-fighting as part of an overall approach to national security, and the building out of a broad-based national security architecture is the correct posture to adopt. This, while working in collaboration with key stakeholders in the society and the Opposition.

In the midst of a pandemic it will be interesting to see how we conduct a general election while ensuring people's health and safety. America, under Donald Trump's presidency, is showing us how not to do it. But if recent experience is anything to go by, there is every indication that the Government is mindful of what we face and will apply the necessary measures to ensure a fair, free, and healthy election process. This should be our hope.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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