A Good Day for Democracy

Published: Sunday | September 28, 2008

In retrospect, no other outcome would have been acceptable. Only in military coups or staged revolutions are popular leaders replaced by less popular ones. People are supposed to be led by the person most of them prefer, and Portia Simpson Miller has been favoured by wide margins in every poll taken. So it would have been an electoral travesty if Peter Phillips had garnered more delegate votes on Saturday and replaced her as People's National Party leader. From this perspective, Portia's victory was a good day for Jamaican democracy.

Now, Mrs Simpson Miller's brief prime ministerial stint was nowhere as bad as her detractors claim. Inflation and crime actually fell under her watch. Since she would have got the blame had the opposite happened, she must be given some of the credit for the positive developments.

But she also has negatives on the ledger. Her constituency is one of the most underdeveloped in the country. The names of some of her right-hand men have been called in too many scandals. During the last election she twice attacked the media from a political platform. She rarely puts forward policy positions on the nation's pressing problems - where are her plans to cut crime or reduce corruption?

But to paraphrase Voltaire, though I may not totally agree with the populace's pick, I will defend to the death their right to choose. The voice of the people may not be the voice of God. But it is, far more often than not, the smartest voice we know of. No sensible person puts complete trust in the opinion of any individual, including himself. Democracy springs from the wisdom of properly structured crowds.

As for the PNP's class divisions, they merely reflect those of the country at large. Indeed the current turmoil may well be a product of "Comrade inclusiveness". The JLP has even more questions to ask itself about being fully representative of the Jamaican people. Where is Labour's champion of the small man and woman?

the masses

Clearly the masses see Portia Simpson Miller not only as their voice, but maybe their only voice. Many seem to feel that without her, the current political process would be strictly a 'big man' affair, in which they would have no say at all. And when the masses feel unrepresented, they often try to destroy the exclusionary system and replace it with something new. Post-1938 Jamaica has remained upheaval free mainly because the dispossessed continue to see our political fabric as, in some way, serving their needs. There can be no peace without some justice.

Many Upper St Andrew verandahs seem to think simply getting rid of Mrs Simpson Miller would solve the 'lumpen' problem, as if sweeping dust under a carpet gets rid of it. The real question is this. Why, after 46 years of independence, do we have so many - in Omar Davies' words - "uneducated and unemployable" inner-city dwellers?

Only by aligning the interests of all groups can a country move forward. It's not an easy task. South Africa is also experiencing class antagonisms, albeit on a larger scale. Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma are, in a way, more sharply defined versions of Peter Phillips and Portia Simpson Miller. But the dynamics are similar.

the poor

Many of the poor are basically saying "letting you intellectuals run the show has not improved our lives, so let us see if we can do better ourselves".

But Jamaica has a multi-party political system tried and proven at amalgamating class interests. South Africa's battles are taking place in a young and untested democracy with only one dominant party. Let's hope Nelson Mandela's great legacy is not tarnished by selfish short-sightedness from his successors.

new blood

Contrary to her opponents' 'done-nothing' charge, Simpson Miller has infused much new blood into her party, including Lisa Hanna, Peter Bunting, Mark Golding, Ian Hayles, Colin Fagan, and Sandrea Falconer. Her political instincts have at times been superb. When she proposed Lisa Hanna as candidate for South West St Ann, nearly everyone laughed. But it turned out to be a political masterstroke. Ms Hanna won her seat easily and has acquitted herself well as shadow information minister. She is clearly popular with both uptown and downtown, and many even talk of her as a potential leadership contender down the road.

Incidentally, Saturday night in the National Arena was a truly historic 'woman time', perhaps signalling Jamaica's future. Simpson Miller prevailed over Dr Phillips. Lisa Hanna got maybe the biggest cheers from the mainly female crowd. And Angela Burke-Brown got more votes than any other vice-presidential candidate, or Simpson Miller for that matter. Is she too a possible future party leader?

The eminence grise behind these triumphs was Angela's husband Paul Burke. Many questioned his run-up tactics, such as the 'sham-delegate-selection' speech and the 'coded-message' security firm ad. But it's hard to argue with two decisive victories, though no doubt Basil Waite and D.K. Duncan also played key roles.

The current PNP disunity is nowhere as bad as the JLP's in the 1990s. At the 1992 Labour conference Pearnel Charles and Rosemarie Shaw were physically assaulted. Nothing close to that happened during Saturday's peaceful and well-organised proceedings - kudos to the PNP secretariat.

new party

No Comrade is threatening to form a new party, as Bruce Golding did in 1995, when he left the JLP to create the NDM. Nor has Simpson Miller or Phillips made disparaging remarks about each other. In 1995 Edward Seaga said Bruce Golding lacked the qualities of an effective leader, and claimed that any of 30 pieces of silver would do as the NDM's symbol.

Seven years later, trailing badly in the polls and facing electoral annihilation, the JLP begged Golding to return. Five more years on, he led them to their first general election victory since 1980.

So the PNP's problems might not be so insurmountable. Nor is Peter Phillips' political career necessarily over. At 58 he is still 14 years younger than potential United States president John McCain. And you can never say never, in the snakes and ladders game of democracy. In 1991, P.J. Patterson resigned in disgrace over the 'Shell Waiver Scandal'. Two years later he returned to become Prime Minister.

But all eyes are now on Portia Simpson Miller. Will her new shadow cabinet be inclusive, and consist of the best available team? Or will she put loyalty above merit and harden the party divide? Certainly the appointment, temporary or not, of Phillip 'Netserv/Trafigura/Solutrea/Light-bulb' Paulwell as Opposition house leader, did not inspire confidence in many. But let's see the full new team before passing judgement.

a loss

Many would like to see Phillips back as security spokesman, since probably no one understands our crime dynamics better. To have him no longer integrally involved in the crime-fighting process would be a loss for the country.

But if Phillips is not asked, or chooses not to accept, how about maybe Peter Bunting in the post? The security portfolio certainly requires some high-wattage brain power, and perhaps too Bunting would bring some out of the box thinking to the table.

Now the dust has settled, let's hope all our politicians turn back to the big picture. Because let's face it. Party manoeuvrings are just sideshows in the face of our world-leading murder rate. Jamaica cannot progress until we get crime under control. And we can't get crime under control until all our leaders work together towards that goal.

Speaking of which, whatever happened to Bruce Golding's invitation to Portia Simpson Miller - and her acceptance of his request - for both prime minister and Opposition leader to walk hand in hand through the inner-city garrisons? Have our leaders no respect at all for their own words?

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