Who really selects the prime minister?Wednesday, November 04, 2020
Every well-thinking Jamaican of voting age should be sitting on pins and needles wondering who will be victorious in the November 7, 2020 internal election when delegates will vote to select the next president of the People's National Party (PNP). The concern would be no less were it the turn of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) to select a leader.
One of the downsides of the Westminster system of government inherited by Jamaica from England is the practice for prime ministers not to be selected by voters in fair and transparent national electoral contests. The uncomfortable reality is that party delegates select the party leader. If, and when, the party is victorious in a general election and forms the Government, the leader — in all cases so far in our electoral history — has ascended to the office of prime minister. That gives delegates immense power; for in choosing the party leader they also choose the de facto prime minister. Who are these people on whose shoulders rests such weighty and, I would contend, misplaced responsibility?
The Gleaner, in an article entitled 'How the PNP chooses its delegates', published July 31, 2019 in the run-up to the September 7 delegates' vote in which Peter Phillips was returned as president in the face of a strong challenge from Peter Bunting, provided the following explanation:
“The majority of the PNP's delegates who will vote in the presidential poll will come from its National Executive Council (NEC) and the party's disparate groups islandwide. The NEC, which is the PNP's highest decision-making body outside of annual conference, will provide nearly 350 of the almost 3,000 delegates. Party groups are the small territorial bodies that exist in the constituencies. Each recognised group, with 10-19 members, is entitled to one delegate. A group with 20 or more is entitled to two delegates.”
That is a brief and somewhat simplistic description of a bureaucratic and elongated process set out in the party's constitution. But it is sufficient to lay the basis for a few troubling questions.
1) What uniquely qualifies someone to be a delegate?
2) What pressures, internal and external to the group, are brought to bear on a delegate to influence how he or she votes?
3) What, if any, role does money (vote-buying and outright bribery) play in influencing how delegates vote — all of which further serves to compromise the democratic process?
To tame the beast, the NEC has established a monitoring committee to establish rules of engagement, including a spending cap on the deep pockets from both camps currently vying for the presidency. There is also the proposal to bypass the mass gathering in Kingston and, instead, have the delegates vote in parishes. Done ostensibly in deference to the risks posed by COVID-19, this should have the added effect of dampening some of the election day shenanigans. But the risks of a small group of people with varying motives naming a future prime minister, on the behalf of the majority who make up the electorate, remains.
By contrast, the system for selecting the president and vice-president of the United States, although not perfect, affords widespread participation and involvement in the process by “We, the people”. Before the general election, candidates from opposing parties run in state-level primaries and caucuses to determine who will represent their respective party. The winner in the primaries and caucuses is awarded a number of delegates, who then attend the national convention, where the candidate with the majority of the delegates is confirmed as the party nominee. The nominees must then represent their respective parties in a general election to determine who will be president.
That process, too, suffers from undemocratic features. In the ensuing presidential election, the president and vice-president are not elected directly by popular vote, but instead by electors within states through a process called the electoral college. In the 2016 US Presidential Election Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton won the popular vote by some three million ballots, 48.2 per cent to 46.1 per cent, but still lost to Donald Trump by virtue of him getting 304 electoral college votes, compared to the 227 she managed to muster. It could happen again in the presidential election just ended.
But, back to Jamaica. The process of selecting the party leader — which incidentally is not mentioned in the constitution — gets even more undemocratically complicated. What happens if the person selected to be party leader does not have a seat in Parliament? This happened twice. Once in 1944, when Norman Manley failed to win a seat in Jamaica's first general election on December 14, 1944. Ivan Lloyd was appointed leader of the Opposition by the governor on the recommendation of elected members of the House. And, again when Bruce Golding came back into the JLP from his experiment with the National Democratic Movement (NDM) in 2002 to become leader without a seat in the House. Ken Baugh was appointed leader of the Opposition. In both instances the leader of the Opposition only played the role of what metaphorically could be described as the nightwatchman, to use a cricketing term. At the appropriate time room was made for the party leader to run in a safe seat and enter the House. Both Manley and Golding subsequently became head of the Government, chief minister and prime minister respectively.
Popular media personality and talk show host Cliff Hughes, on one of his morning shows, questioned whether the time has come to open up the process of selecting the party leader to include the thousands who make up the wider membership. Although not fully addressing the undemocratic nature of the process, such a move would certainly make the results of an election statistically more reflective of what might have transpired in a national poll.
Some commentators have disdainfully compared the process of selecting party leaders, and ultimately prime ministers, to beauty contests. With a former Miss World in the hunt for the coveted prize in the upcoming election to select a successor to Dr Peter Phillips, the comparison has never been more apt.