Saturday 11 July, 2020

An election analysis locally amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Opposition Leader, Dr Peter Phillips (left), and Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

Opposition Leader, Dr Peter Phillips (left), and Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

There is without a doubt in the minds of many citizens that when history is written, Jamaica's ninth Prime Minister, Andrew Michael Holness, will likely be noted for his so far almost astounding management and containment of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) within the island.

This bright achievement in a time when the virus has ravaged many global economies and killed over 300,000 worldwide, should likely push Holness far ahead of his Opposition counterpart, Dr Peter Phillips of the People's National Party (PNP), whenever the next general elections are called.

But to be fair and objective, Holness cannot take all the praise for the management of the Covid-19 challenges locally, as Dr Christopher Tufton and his team at the Ministry of Health and Wellness, led to a great extent by Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie, have together worked extremely hard and purposefully to dent any extreme escalation of the virus like in the United States, where over 1.5 million people have contracted the disease. Of that number, over 96,000 people have died of COVID-19, according to John Hopkins University data.

Health and Wellness Minister, Dr Christopher Tufton, meeting with members of the security forces within the recently quarantined communities in St Mary.

Here in Jamaica, Holness' clearly strong and decisive leadership has been seen from the outset of Jamaica's first set of cases when he took the early decision to close all schools, implement work-from-home orders and various curfew measures, along with ordering the closure of the island's border to minimise the spread of the virus.

Wherever clusters of the virus were identified, the Government acted decisively to implement quarantine/lockdown orders, notably in Bull Bay in St Andrew; Cornpiece in Clarendon; the entire parish of St Catherine; and the communities of Dover, Annotto Bay and Enfield in St Mary.

The lockdowns, though met with opposition, complaints and heated criticisms from residents, the PNP and other stakeholder groups, have seemingly largely paid off for the Holness Administration, as the virus has so far been largely contained in the once lockdown areas.

More than two months since Jamaica's first COVID-19 case, health officials continue to seemingly win the battle, as roughly 200 persons have recovered from the virus up to Saturday, May 22.

While the island is still not out of the woods, as cases continue to be recorded, to date, Jamaica's COVID-19 tally stands at 550, with approximately 300 active cases.

For his efforts of containment of the island's coronavirus numbers, Holness has been widely publicly commended by many citizens, radio talk show hosts, political commentators and his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) colleagues. He has also been recognised internationally for the efforts and the results so far, including with an appearance on CNN and in coverage by a US-based newspaper.

And with every release of COVID-19 recovery figures, JLP supporters have been active in launching verbal celebrations of the "mighty, God-like" efforts of their party leader and the Government on various social media platforms, including those linked to media entities.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the JLP supporters and other citizens who made strong assertions that they were not at all affiliated with any political party, were itching to usher Holness into a second term in office.  This was due largely to the economic successes of the Administration, such as the whopping 19 consecutive quarters of economic growth, unemployment at record low levels, the booming growth of the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, and several large investments mainly in the tourism and hospitality sector.

One cannot also forget the combined impact of several major road improvement projects that were undertaken by the Administration, and others earmarked to commence, such as the much-touted South Coast Highway.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness (in blue shirt) being updated by officers of the National Works Agency (NWA) during a tour of some major Corporate Area infrastructure projects last year. 

Many had theorised that general elections were likely to be called in May or June of this year, despite the polls being constitutionally due in February 2021. However, a unique virus derailed the zealous march of the labourites on what was labelled as a ‘sure shot’ at trouncing the PNP at the polls and sending the Opposition party into the proverbial political wilderness.

The coronavirus has also negatively impacted the economic gains that were made by the JLP on the back of the financial stability it inherited from the PNP back in 2016, as the Bank of Jamaica only this week claimed that unemployment, due mainly to layoffs, could be as high as 12 per cent. The tourism sector has also largely been shuttered by the virus, with thousands of persons being affected and some businesses now closed or with significantly scaled down operations.

The budget too, has been cut, due to steep declines in revenue caused by COVID-19.

But with the containment of the virus in Jamaica, Holness has signalled his intent to get the economy rolling on the ‘prosperity’ agenda again with his announcement that work-from-home orders are to expire on May 31.

With the 'new COVID-19 success' added to the winning points column of the Government, the labourites are itching to tread the campaign trail to ensure that their ‘Brogad’ - the unconventional title given to Holness by mainly young Jamaicans as an offshoot of a popular community slang - is kept at the helm of the leadership of the island.

Some political commentators have already dubbed the general elections as a mere formality, with Holness expected to defeat Phillips handsomely at the polls. They argue that the PNP remains in turmoil despite a commendable portrayal of unity for the public's consumption. Additionally, commentators have indicated that the Opposition party remains bruised by the leadership race last year, when Phillips defeated Central Manchester Member of Parliament (MP), Peter Bunting.

Opposition Leader, Dr Peter Phillips, delivering his presidential address at last year's public session of the People's National Party's (PNP) annual conference at the National Arena in St Andrew. 

Phillips has also lagged behind Holness in several commissioned opinion polls, resulting in many individuals questioning his right to lead the Old Hope Road, St Andrew-based party. Additionally, Phillips' age and recently, his colon cancer diagnosis, for which he had a successful surgery, have been dragged into the discussions surrounding his leadership.

With these issues bedevilling the PNP, what can truly stop Andrew Holness from winning the next general elections?

The answer to that questions appears to lie within his own party at the constituency level.

The JLP won the 2016 General Election by the slimmest of margins; 32-31 seats over the PNP, which was then led by Portia Simpson Miller.

Since then, the JLP has increased its seat count to 34 out of two by-elections which were brought about by the tragic deaths of two sitting PNP parliamentarians, Dr Winston Green of South East St Mary, who died of illness in 2017, and Dr Lynvale Bloomfield of East Portland, who was violently killed at his home in February of 2019.

In the October 2017 by-election, the JLP's Dr Norman Dunn polled 8,176 votes to defeat the PNP's Dr Shane Alexis, who amassed 7,230 votes.

Over a year and six months later, a total of 9,989 voters chose the JLP's Ann-Marie Vaz to become the new MP for East Portland. Her competitor in the April 4, 2019 by-election, the PNP’s Damion Crawford, received 9,611 votes.

But as the next general elections draw closer in the minds of labourites, comrades and non-partisan citizens, the question is, has the JLP done enough to hold on to the 34 seats it now holds? Can the party also pull in any success from among the PNP's 29 seats?

Earlier this week, a caller to a radio talk show who claimed that he was from the North West St Elizabeth constituency, described his parliamentarian, JC Hutchinson, as a "missing MP". The caller lamented that several communities in the constituency has no water supply and cited the veteran JLP representative as being largely absent from the constituency.

North West St Elizabeth Member of Parliament, JC Hutchinson... missing in action?

In the general elections of February 25, 2016, Hutchinson retained the seat by less than 1,000 votes. Former West Indies cricketer, Daren Powell, who then ran on the PNP ticket, but has since reportedly switched to the ruling JLP, lost by 945 votes to Hutchinson, who polled 5,896 votes.

Poor representation, where it truly exits, could actually allow PNP candidates to make serious inroads into JLP constituencies, providing serious challenges to represents who come under significant criticisms like that which the caller to the tank show cited in respect of Hutchinson.

The caller's comments led to other individuals listening to the programme later listing other supposedly "missing" parliamentarians, with Leslie Campbell of North East St Catherine among those coming up for mention. Residents of his constituency have long complained about lack of adequate water supplies and proper road infrastructure.

Campbell, notably, only won the seat by 122 votes in the 2016 General Elections, and he certainly cannot afford to be complacent or "missing". His PNP rival, Phyllis Mitchell, received 5,763 of the 11,648 legitimate ballots at the polls, while the JLP received the remainder to be victorious. A total of 105 ballots were rejected, according to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (EOJ).

Well-known attorney, Oswest Senior-Smith, who is no stranger to representational politics having been defeated by Shahine Robinson in North East St Ann in the 2007 polls, is set to go up against Campbell at the next general elections.

Another supposedly missing Government parliamentarian, according to another listener of the radio programme, is Dr Andrew Wheatley of South Central St Catherine. He has been described as not being visible enough in sections of the constituency.

Wheatley, who was Minister of Science, Energy and Technology, resigned from the Holness Cabinet in July of 2018 in the wake of several scandals that erupted over a two-month period at state-run entities over which he had portfolio responsibility. These included the country’s lone oil refinery, Petrojam, and National Energy Solutions Limited (NESOL).

Wheatley had been a weakened member of the Cabinet, having been stripped of the energy portfolio three weeks prior to his resignation. Since that time, the South Central St Catherine MP has appeared sparingly in the public view, but to his credit, his Twitter account has shown pictures which depict work being carried out in sections of his constituency up to this week.

But, interestingly, Wheatley's constituency has been regarded as a JLP stronghold since it was created, and in the 2016 General Elections, he polled 8,283 votes to defeat the PNP's Courtney Spence, who received a meagre 2,929 votes. So performance or the lack thereof may not feature significantly in determining the outcome of the polls for Dr Wheatley, as any PNP candidate will need to overcome the deficit of more than 5,000 votes to claim victory.

West Central St James MP, Attorney General Marlene Malahoo-Forte. 

There are other parliamentarians who are rumoured to also be in trouble of losing favour with their constituents. Among that grouping is said to be Marlene Malahoo-Forte of West Central St James. She is expected to battle against Senator Dr Andre Haughton, a youthful University of the West Indies (UWI) lecturer and noted economist. It has been reported in some quarters that Haughton has been picking up momentum in the constituency.

If that is true, Malahoo-Forte cannot afford to not be quite visible in the constituency, although seen definitely highlighting constituency projects on social media, as the seat is one that Holness must factor in his party’s column in seeking victory when he decides to call the general elections.

Malahoo-Forte, who is the island's Attorney General, won the February 2016 elections by an impressive 1,261 votes. At the end of the official count, she received 6,635 of the ballots to defeat the PNP's Sharon Ffolkes-Abrahams, who polled 5,374 of the 12,127 ballots cast. However, 78 of those ballots were rejected.

Newcomer to representational politics, Pearnel Charles Jr of South East Clarendon, who won a by-election on March 2 with 6,846 votes, will likely face stiffer competition from the PNP's candidate, Patricia Duncan-Sutherland, whenever the general elections are called. The PNP did not contest the by-election, which was called due to the retirement of veteran JLP representative, Rudyard Spencer.

In the 2016 General Elections, Spencer managed to turn back the challenge of Duncan-Sutherland by a margin of 958 votes. At the end of the final counting of ballots, the veteran trade unionist polled 9,997 votes to his PNP opponent’s 9,039 votes.

People's National Party (PNP) Caretaker/candidate for South East Clarendon, Patricia Duncan-Sutherland, who is expected to be on the starter's orders and set to give Pearnel Charles Jr a real run for his money in the next general elections. 

Duncan-Sutherland has not left the constituency, and has maintained consistent presence there. Will she be able to reap the rewards of her ‘l

abour’, or will Charles Jr continue the JLP's successful tradition in the seat when the general elections are announced?

In the North Central Clarendon constituency, Charles Jr's father, Pearnel Charles Snr, is not expected to contest the next general elections, and already Parliamentary Secretary and Senator, Robert Nesta Morgan, has begun his quest to become the next parliamentarian for the constituency. His social media platforms have been flooded with his campaign activities across several communities of the constituency, despite the island facing several restrictive measures in relation to stay-at-home and social distancing orders, including sports, a la even community cricket matches.

But does the first timer to representational politics have the capacity to overcome some labourites in the area who disagree with his selection to run as a candidate on the JLP ticket, and also win the hearts of uncommitted voters?

Robert Nesta Morgan... said to be in a battle with both the PNP and some labourites for the North Central Clarendon seat.

Interestingly, Charles Snr was victorious over his PNP rival, long-time community figure, Dr Desmond Brennan, by only 536 votes in the last general elections. The official votes published by the Electoral Office of Jamaica revealed at Charles Senior received a total of 6,230 votes to defeat Brennan, who polled 5,694 votes. Therefore, Morgan could be in for the battle of his life to taste the sweet thrills of being seated in

Gordon House as a member of the House of Representatives.

Some political observers have also made the point that in situations where the entire JLP machinery is not placed behind candidates during the build-up to a by-election, as were the cases with Dr Norman Dunn and Ann-Marie Vaz, a united and well-oiled PNP machinery could pose some challenges to some sitting parliamentarians in general elections.

The Opposition is widely viewed as being a far shadow of its glory days of winning four conservative elections, resulting in its 18 consecutive year at the helm of Government between 1989 and 2007.

 A critically important question now is, if Holness, for example, should lose any of the 34 seats the JLP now hold, does he have strong candidates/caretakers who can claim at least a few of the 29 seats now held by the PNP?

Montego Bay Mayor, Homer Davis, is among the projected JLP candidates who are seen as being poised to possibly take the PNP's South St James constituency that has been held by veteran politician, Derrick Kellier, since 1989.

Due mainly to ill heath, Kellier has long indicated that he will not contest the next general elections, making way for the PNP to install a new standard-bearer in the form of political neophyte, Dr Walton Small, a former educator and President of the Inter-Secondary Schools’ Sports Association (ISSA).

Montego Bay Mayor, Homer Davis... being touted as a likely winner for the JLP in South St James.

Many political observers have dubbed the seat as a major battleground, with some already suggesting that Davis could win the seat for the JLP. This is based on the fact that Davis, who is also Councillor for the Cambridge Division in the constituency, only lost to Kellier by 53 votes in the 2016 General Elections following a magisterial recount.

The JLP's General Secretary, Dr Horace Chang, revealed his confidence in Davis winning the South St James seat at a ceremony for the renaming of Quebec Avenue in the parish as the Dr Horace Chang Boulevard in January of this year. Chang also confidently asserted that he believed that his party will win the five constituencies in St James.

If Holness is to indeed whip the Peter Phillips-led PNP at the polls whenever general elections are held, the parliamentary seats in St James will have to feature heavily in the party's favour.

Interestingly, Holness himself indicated at a political meeting in Hanover in February of this year, that his party has eyes set on the constituencies of Westmoreland, a parish that has been historically dubbed 'PNP country'’

To be successful there, Holness said he would be focused on both the uncommitted and committed voters.

Westmoreland, however, has always swung to the PNP's column, despite some of its candidates losing some voter support over recent times.

In Western Westmoreland, Dr Wykeham McNeill polled 6,679 votes in the 2016 General Elections. This was a reduction of 2,261 votes when matched against the number that was polled in the 2011 elections. McNeill is presently a PNP Vice-President. The official count of the 2016 elections gave the JLP's candidate, Dixeth Palmer, 5,186 votes.

Dwayne Vaz, the MP for Central Westmoreland, also lost well over 2,000 votes when compared to the votes that were amassed in the 2011 General Elections by the now deceased Roger Clarke, who then won with 11,564 votes. Vaz received 9,978 votes to defeat the JLP's George Wright who polled 8,847 votes.

In Eastern Westmoreland, the PNP's Luther Buchanan received close to 2,000 votes less in 2016, when compared to the 2011 parliamentary polls. However, the 6,675 votes he polled in 2016 was a tally way ahead of the JLP’s Andrea Walters, who received 3,802 votes.

The JLP has also taken positively, the results of the last local government elections in Westmoreland since the last general elections. Before the 2016 polls, the JLP had no division in the Westmoreland Municipal Corporation. Though failing to wrestle the municipal authority from the vice-grip-like hands of the PNP, the JLP claimed four divisions in the last local government polls.

The divisions swept by the JLP were the Petersfield, Frome, Savanna-la-Mar and Cornwall Mountain divisions in Central Westmoreland. Only the Savanna-la-Mar North Division survived in the PNP column within the constituency.

Will the JLP do the unthinkable and claim its first seat in Westmoreland since 1983, or will the COVID-19 pandemic push grass root supporters of the PNP to rally behind the party’s thirst to regain state power?

The JLP was also expected to do battle, and possibly win the North West St Ann constituency, which it last won in the 2007 polls. The seat has been firmly held by the PNP's Dr Dayton Campbell since 2011, but many political observers thought there was a real chance for Jamaica College principal, Ruel Reid, to claim victory for the JLP.

But in March last year, those chances nosedived with the resignation of Reid as Minister of Education and Senator in the wake of a multi-million dollar corruption scandal at the ministry he had responsibility for, and the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU). Reid, along with CMU President, Dr Fritz Pinnock, have since been slapped with multiple fraud-related charges.

In fact, Kim Brown-Lawrence, Councillor for the Brown's Town Division in North West St Ann, is also among five persons on the fraud-related charges linked to the scandal.

The efforts made by Reid in the constituency were highly noticeable, especially with regards to road rehabilitation, but the allegations of corruption bedevilling Reid and the JLP have pushed the focus towards the present parliamentarian, Campbell.

North West St Ann MP, Dr Dayton Campbell... has benefited from the departure of Ruel Reid from the seat, but will have to contend with the fact that in the local government elections after the last national polls, the JLP won all four municipal corporation divisions in the constituency.  

For the most part, his social media skills have improved, as he has used several videos and photographs to showcase the work that he has done to bring welcomed improvements to the lives of his constituents. His partnership with HEART Trust/NTA, for example, has seen several residents of the constituency benefitting from skilled-based training in various fields.

The JLP has since appointed businesswoman, Krystal Lee, to the post of candidate/caretaker for the constituency. She is presently the Councillor for the Retreat Division in St Mary.

Some political observers believe that Campbell, who has solidified his status in the constituency, could possibly trounce the renewed attempts of the JLP to win the seat. However, persons within the constituency have indicated that Lee has been on the ground working with her JLP councillors. The JLP will also feel comfortable knowing that in the last local government elections, the party won all four divisions in North West St Ann.

Lee will have to overcome the deficit of 410 votes which the previous JLP candidate, Othneil Lawrence, lost by in the 2016 General Elections. Campbell gained 8,461 votes to become a second-term parliamentarian after first winning at the polls in 2011.

The JLP will also be relying on other new caretakers, including Robert Miller in South East St Catherine, Tova Hamilton in North Trelawny, and Dr Michelle Charles in East St Thomas.

There are rumblings within both political parties, especially highlighted through heated exchanges among their social media bloggers, that some seats are yet to be settled, or some candidate/caretakers are not being supported by the party supporters in the respective seats.

On the point of candidate selection, Chang revealed earlier this year that the JLP was far advanced in settling all outstanding seats. The PNP has indicated the same.

Although Holness has been hailed for his efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 and is favoured to win the next national elections, he cannot be complacent, and must use some of his efforts to now urge both JLP parliamentarians and caretakers to resolve the issues bedevilling their seats. If candidates are not in place within some constituencies at present for either party, that process needs to be quickly finalised.

The truth is that the PNP has not featured well within opinion polls of late, and the same can be said about the party’s presence on the ground within some battleground seats. But the JLP cannot take for granted the reality that a united PNP, with its traditionally well-oiled machinery, can pose a serious challenge at any national polls.

If the elections entirely were focused on voting for a leader instead of a constituency representative, then Holness would be well in the driver's seat to winning the general elections that are constitutionally due by February 2021.

But that is not the case. Each of the 63 JLP candidates will have a critical role to play in the outcome of the constituency elections and, by extension, the outcome in terms of party position on seat count.

Importantly, the 34 parliamentarians on the Government side or their replacement(s) seemingly need to ensure that they retain their seats, as if any of them fall short of winning the race to Gordon House, some JLP caretakers may need to rise to the occasion and walk into Gordon House for Holness to continue his stewardship of the nation's affairs.

Thus, complacency and lack of work in the seats now held by the JLP could work in the favour of the PNP, despite all its issues, and Holness must take note of that fact, even amid that continued challenges of the novel coronavirus.

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