Can a divided PNP heal itself to beat the JLPWednesday, September 11, 2019
The brutal leadership contest for the heart and soul of the People's National Party (PNP) has now ended with Peter, the Elder, (Dr Peter Phillips) emerging the victor. His opponent, Peter, the Younger, (Peter Bunting) put up a gallant fight, but it was not enough to prevent Dr Phillips squeaking to victory with a very narrow margin. What now becomes of the PNP is anybody's guess.
The campaign was very acrimonious as they tend to be in Jamaica's tribal political culture. Although not expecting better, Jamaicans were appalled at the animosity that the contest evoked, especially recognising that this is a party that will soon present itself as one to be their future governors in a general election. Accusations of vote-buying, support by dons, and virulent criticisms of the deficiencies of respective contestants abounded.
Political supporters of either side in a contest seem to forget that there is life after these contests. When deep fissures appear in the relationships among combatants it makes the task of healing so much more difficult when the dust settles. Furthermore, they provide fodder for their opposition to use in general elections.
The immediate task for the PNP, therefore, is to begin the difficult work of healing, of bringing the sharply divided sides together and to get the party to unite or re-unite around a set of principles and programmes that can take the party forward. This time around it will not be that easy. My suspicion is that the fabric of the PNP has been so torn that patching it, or getting a new set of garments that will make it look respectable to the Jamaican electorate, will be a Herculean task. Egos have been bruised and people's sensibilities brutalised on the altars of political acrimony. Some of this seemed quite personal and, to the extent that this was so, the task of bringing people together to fight for a common cause will be made so much more difficult.
Dr Phillips has a hard road ahead of him. Despite the protestations of his 'One PNP' camp, many inside the party consider him a lacklustre leader who will be no match for the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) Andrew Holness in a general election. It will take a great deal of magnanimity on his part to bring the various factions together to give the JLP a good fight in the upcoming general election.
He has survived the contest, but the trepidations of Comrades prior to the contest have not been dissipated. He now has some wind behind his back since he has solidified his hold on the party. But his work has just begun. How he reaches out to the Bunting camp will indicate what lessons he has learnt from the contest, but, more importantly, what leadership he will provide going forward to massage bruised egos and overcome alienation among Comrades.
What of Peter Bunting? Some will argue that they were vindicated in their belief that he should not have contested for the leadership when he did. I am sure he has given thought to what his future in the PNP will be, and by extension Jamaican politics. He is not a careless man, and only he can know what is in his heart. But if he wants to continue in the PNP he must be open to whatever overtures the cemented leader may make to him and members of his team.
There is a lot of blame to go around, and no one side is free from any culpability in what ails the party. So a level of maturity, and even humility, is urged.
If he decides to walk away, then so be it. It would be unfortunate if he should do this, as he still has a lot to contribute to the PNP and Jamaica if he should remain in politics. To take up his marbles and walk would suggest a thin skin and show him up as being peeved because he lost. I would encourage him to remain. Although one cannot be certain about anything in politics, he has a viable path towards the leadership of his party. He must lick his wounds, reach into his inner reserves of strength and resilience, and, yes, seek divine intervention as to his future.
Meanwhile, the loud sound that was heard from Morant Point to Negril Point last Saturday was the great sigh of relief from the JLP that Phillips won. The party would prefer a general election contest with Phillips at the head of the party. Although not saying it loudly — and in some cases discounting it — the JLP felt that they would have had a more formidable opponent in Bunting. Poll after poll has shown Holness beating Phillips in such a contest.
What is of greater import for Jamaica is that the PNP recalibrates itself so it can be presented as a viable Government-in-waiting. Both sides characterised the contest as a battle for the heart and soul of the party. But does the party really know what that heart and soul is? Does it really understand the strong philosophical foundations on which its raison d'etre was built? If these questions are to be answered cogently the party must recognise that it has morphed into a bellicose vote-getting machine which has untethered it from the lofty ideals of its founders.
Defaulting to a chequered past defined by a discredited democratic socialism will not cut it. Not with the teeming young majority in the country who are yearning for something different, something more pragmatic that can affect for good their desire for a better livelihood and a more hopeful future. Not so, also, with the growing number of independents who have had it with the tribal, immoral politics practised by the major parties and who are anxious for a new path. Incidentally, this latter group must not just yearn and hope for change, but must lean heavily on these parties to get the change they desire. They must become a social force of activism to be reckoned with so that they can force change, especially for a new paradigm of governance characterised by a reformed and more relevant constitution.
How the PNP heals in the context of their present division is something to be seen. What we do know is that between now and the next election the party must move speedily to overcome its divisions and present a set of programmes and policies that Jamaicans can buy into. In this, time is not their best friend.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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