The Opposition People's National Party (PNP) enters the public session of its 85th annual conference on Sunday with a bold bid to lift its stock and fix rough spots on the road to regaining the reins of State power.
The event comes at a time when verbal blows unleashed against a media house recently by General Secretary Dayton Campbell, and a slavery depiction stunt at a constituency conference last Sunday may have eroded some support and respect from Jamaica's oldest relevant political party.
The National Arena is expected to be full to capacity soon after the event's 10:00 am start, thus forcing those who normally gather on the outside to have a smoke, put down a few drinks, and listen occasionally to the list of speakers ... to continue their age-old practice, duly decked out in orange shirts or any colour close to that.
The first two days of the conference, held at Jamaica Conference Centre on Friday and Saturday, were dedicated to private sessions, which included addresses by party president Mark Golding, who was returned, unopposed as head of the organisation on Friday; and retired president, PJ Patterson, a former prime minister of Jamaica, on Saturday.
Golding will not only be aiming to deliver the main address of his life on Sunday, after an introduction by energetic candidate for St Elizabeth South Western, Miranda Wellington, but could fall short if, in that address, he does not answer some of the burning issues surrounding candidate selection for the next general election, and how his party would tackle national issues that continue to choke the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Those issues involve the island's high crime rate, controlling inflation, providing affordable housing to the populace; banking reform investment regulation — zeroing on the ongoing Stocks and Securities situation with many losing their investments from the insolvent firm, including national icon Usain Bolt; teacher emigration at the centre of a wider brain drain, behaviour of public transport operators on the road, among others.
Although he might not bring it to the forefront, Golding will later on be forced to address the matter of Campbell, who is prone to making erratic statements that often put the party into disrepute, and who has grown unpopular inside and outside of the organisation.
Golding also finds himself trailing Prime Minister Andrew Holness by 17 percentage points: 37-20, as to who is better suited to move Jamaica forward, in the latest Nationwide Blue Dot poll commissioned by Nationwide News Network — a worrisome decline from the statistical dead heat that he registered in the June poll conducted by Dr Don Anderson's Market Research Services.
The Blue Dot poll also cited the JLP with 35 per cent, as the party that is best suited to lead Jamaica now, compared to 23 per cent for the PNP. Also of worry to Golding must be the Blue Dot party standings that show the JLP with 31 per cent support, over the PNP's 25 per cent.
The June Anderson poll gave the PNP 30.2 per cent national support, in contrast to the JLP's 25 per cent — a clear lead even when the plus or minus three per cent margin of error is factored in. A year ago, the tables were reversed, as the PNP then had 18 per cent support among the committed electorate, while the JLP had 34 per cent.
Now that the Nationwide Blue Dot poll has revealed other findings, it will be interesting to see how the numbers will turn in the next poll by Anderson.
The PNP intends to unveil the majority of 63 candidates, just over 45, the Sunday Observer was told, that it will field in the next general election, expected in around two years, but already there is concern that the right methodology is not being used to select the appropriate people who can engage the electorate.
Although the PNP has called them 'provisional' candidates, most are expected to be ratified prior to nomination day.
Many PNP supporters in some constituencies are unhappy with some of those who have been chosen so far, among them Golding ally Ian Hayles, a fiery former Member of Parliament in Hanover Western, who has switched to Westmoreland Western amid a row that led to the exit from the party of three PNP councillors in the Westmoreland Municipal Corporation — two defecting to the JLP and the other making an about turn on Friday, after spending time warming the seats of the independent lounge.
Also in Westmoreland, a storm of sorts is brewing in Central, following the catapulting of Dwayne Vaz, a considered underperformer of the last PNP Administration, to occupy the bench in preparation for the next election, over others who are considered more worthy.
The selection, too, of Lawrence Rowe in Kingston Central has forced many to ask what kind of political strokes the newcomer would be qualified to play, were he to gain the nod over the incumbent Donovan Williams.
The seat has been represented by high-profile PNP individuals in the past, among them former prime minister Michael Manley; Ralph Brown, a former Minister of Local Government; and Rhodes Scholar Ronald Thwaites, who served as Minister of Education.
The party going for Lorane Ferguson in St Mary South Eastern to compete against incumbent Dr Norman Dunn has also opened up deep conversations; likewise Colin Bell over veteran educator Owen Speid in Portland Eastern.
Then, word surfaced on Friday that habitual loser Patrick Roberts could, again, be asked to run against Holness in St Andrew West Central, which is bound to raise further concerns, and potentially reduce the party's image, as Roberts has lost to Holness five times in a row.
On the other hand, checks done by the Jamaica Observer have shown that the PNP has been commended in large measure for the selection of candidates such as Golding's hand picked man, Dr Alfred Dawes in St Catherine South Eastern; Wellington in St Elizabeth, Nekeisha Burchell in St James Southern; Dr Aujae Dixon in Clarendon North Central, Omar Newell in St Mary Central; Keisha Hayle in St Andrew West Rural; and Zulieka Jess in St Elizabeth North Eastern.
Internal politics aside, most constituencies are expected to be well represented at the first conference after the June poll by Anderson showed the party leading the JLP for the first time since 2016 — a result sober political analysts have said is reflective of how the Government has been performing, particularly over the last three years, rather than any impressive show by the PNP, which has, in the last five years, been dogged by internal strife, some of which have been soothed, though lingering discord continues to prevent all sores from healing.
"We are brimming with anticipation for the 85th annual conference of the PNP. This promises to be a resounding success, with thousands of supporters and comrades converging at the National Arena on Sunday, the 17th," responded Deputy General Secretary Burchell to an interview request by the Sunday Observer.
"The overwhelming response from across Jamaica and the diaspora has been remarkable. We anticipate Sunday's attendance to surge into the thousands.
"In my own constituency of South St James, we have taken measures to accommodate the unprecedented number of supporters eager to participate in Conference 2023.
"The groundswell of energy and enthusiasm has been truly exceptional, and we are committed to ensuring a smooth and enjoyable experience for all, including former supporters of the other party who are joining us on this journey to experience the Comrade Experience."
Burchell said that deep planning had gone into making arrangements for the conference seamless, in a bid to showcase the best of the PNP.
"Comrades attending the conference will leave the National Arena informed, charged up, and ready to send a resounding message to the prime minister and his Government that Jamaica is ready for a better Jamaica under the PNP," Burchell continued.
"Our conference slogan builds upon last year's theme: 'Time Come NOW!' For the first time in our 85 years, we're practically repeating a slogan because it resonates deeply with the people.
"The public has embraced Time Come, expressing their impatience with a system that has been lethargic and decrepit. Time Come NOW adds even more urgency to the call, signalling that our demand for change has reached fever pitch.
"When Jamaica reaches this stage of actively demanding change, the Government must recognise that Time Come — it's time for transformation and progress, time for a new direction.
"For those who may not be able to join us at the arena on Sunday, worry not. You can tune in to our live coverage at 10:00 am on our YouTube, Facebook, IG, and X pages @JamaicaPNP, as well as our website at pnp.org.jm.
"We've made sure that everyone can be part of this historic event, no matter where you are," Burchell said.
The police have issued their annual conference warning against irregular conduct on the roads leading to the National Arena, in particular about body protrusion from buses, but nothing is likely to change, as arrests have come at a premium.
Traffic diversions in the vicinity of Independence Park have also been implemented.