Portland Eastern by-election a sore test for the PNP


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

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So the Portland Eastern by-election is now history and “Action Ann” has emerged the victor. It was a hotly fought contest, but from the very beginning to the end Ann-Marie Vaz never wavered in her confidence that she would take the seat. She had done the work on the ground and felt comfortable that she had won the confidence of the people, which would be sufficient to put her across the finish line ahead.

Her opponent, Mr (I almost wrote Dr) Damion Crawford also felt confident about his prospects. But I, as I am sure others, felt that this was a muted confidence. He had a formidable opponent in Vaz and behind his vaunted enthusiasm he knew it was not going to be an easy road to victory.

If history was anything to go by, he should have had the winds behind his back propelling him to a solid victory. His party held the seat for the past 30 years. That alone would convince any candidate that his or her victory was assured. The old political spectacles that people have worn over these many years would guarantee continuance of a blind loyalty that would support any candidate the party sent there.

But this was not to be. He found a persistent and well-motivated opponent in Vaz, who did not take the people for granted or assume a ready victory. Perhaps one of the first lessons to learn from this election is that in the new iteration of politics that is emerging in Jamaica, no candidate should take the people for granted. In a sense, there is no 'safe seat' anymore, except in the garrison constituencies where enforced loyalty to one political party or the other is still the order of the day. Even in the United States, there seems to be emerging a consensus that party loyalty can no longer guarantee the success or longevity of political candidates. It is the person who is best perceived to deliver for the people who will get the votes, and it does not matter their political stripes. This view is borne out in the increasing number of people who are becoming independents and shunning the major parties.

Because of social media, and the dint of hard experience, people are able to make the distinction between those who genuinely care for them and those who simply want to use them as conduits to their own political ends. Coming out of the last general election, which saw the People's National Party (PNP) candidate winning by over 2,000 votes, Vaz had a tremendous hurdle to overcome. As a political neophyte, she did her campaign in the way she knew how — laying herself bare to the people, allowing them to see her soul, and pulling them into her bosom as a mother brooding over young chicks. She was perceived as authentic and genuine and someone to whom people could relate. Once people buy into the genuineness of a political candidate half of that person's work is accomplished. The rest is just to add enough gravy to make the victory more palatable.

In his desperation to paint her as elitist, Crawford made the fatal mistake of not doing his homework in understanding the background and experience of his opponent. Bent on vilifying her credentials, academic standing and intelligence, he failed to see how much her experience could be parlayed in getting the people to relate to her. Her homespun and folksy approach in her campaigning could not be matched by the glib, detached rhetoric of her opponent. One of Vaz's greatest strengths was to use this homespun and folksy genuineness to her advantage. As it turned out, it worked wonders for her.

Another lesson to be learnt, especially by the PNP, is that political naiveté must not be confused with charisma. Despite all the claims of Crawford's charisma, he is yet to prove himself a politician of substance that people can take seriously. He may have the gift of the gab and be able to hurl one-liners that appeal to certain elements of his support, but his political immaturity shows up every so often in intemperate statements that he makes from political platforms. No one should make the mistake to think that the over 9,000 votes that he received were due to his personality and charisma. He was catapulted into the constituency just a month before the polls. He was an outsider coming into the constituency with the haunting perception of the pedigree of one who picks up his marbles and runs when things don't seem to be going his way. Although he got more votes than the late Member of Parliament Dr Lynvale Bloomfield, the large majority of his votes was due to PNP loyalties which remained entrenched, but which were not enough to get him over the hump.

One believes that Crawford's political sagacity, personality and charisma have been overblown, especially in the PNP. As I have written before, he comes across as a reluctant warrior, and one wonders whether having lost he will now turn his back on the constituency. Will he stay in there and do the hard slogging to the next general election? People in the PNP and elsewhere do him a disservice when they do not point out his faults and give him the necessary guidance that he needs, given his penchant for putting his feet in his mouth.

By virtue of the high votes he got in the last vice-presidential elections, he is being viewed as a potential president of the PNP after Peter Phillips, and hence a possible candidate for prime minister of this country. Does anyone seriously believe that at this stage he really qualifies for this kind of responsibility? I know I am laying it out on the line, but I am also sure I am saying what many prefer to say quietly from their verandahs for obvious reasons. They cannot face the blowback that often comes with criticising political elites like Crawford. And he is a political elite, for he sits next to the party leader in power and influence in the party.

It is interesting how Vaz's charisma was downplayed in the run-up to the election. Yet, she demonstrated a grass-roots appeal to the masses that has not been seen for a long time in political campaigning in Jamaica. Her campaign strategy and style should be political lesson 101 for other politicians, even for some of those who have been long at the stumps. Whenever she promised something, people believed her, because they could match rhetoric with work they had seen her do in the constituency.

Now the hard work begins and this column wishes her all the best as she pursues her arduous tasks. She too will become a political relic or a mere subject for the political archives if she fails to perform. Rejection by the people is the ultimate lesson to learn for political inaction.

Perhaps the man who lost the greatest in this last election is Dr Peter Phillips himself. This is his second major by-election loss in a row since he became party president. There were already rumblings as to his sustainability as president. He will be under greater pressure to decide his future or have it decided for him. He faces some urgent choices. He can putter on to conference in September and even continue after that as president. Or he can begin to see the writing on the wall which is the context of his political obituary. Of one thing one can be sure, the next PNP conference will not be business as usual. One expects that one or two of those who have been holding back from challenging for the presidency may become more emboldened in their desire to do so. They may or may not put their hats in the ring. But whatever happens, Norman Manley's party will be sorely tested.


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

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