Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

JAMAICA: Prime Minister Seeks Her Own Mandate

Peter Ischyrion

KINGSTON, Jul 19 2007 (IPS) - Virtually handed the government on a platter in 2006 after an internal campaign, Portia Simpson Miller is going to the Jamaican electorate next month hoping to secure her own mandate to become the country’s first-ever elected woman head of government.

A popular grassroots politician, the 64-year-old who took over from P.J. Patterson as prime minister in March last year is confident she will survive the upcoming elections and lead the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) to an unprecedented fifth straight term in office.

“Are you ready for the first time to give Portia, a working class woman and leader of the winning team, her first full term as prime minister of Jamaica? Are you ready to give to Jamaica a woman of courage, a woman of determination, a woman of the people, from the people and for the people?” she asked supporters as she announced the Aug. 27 election date at a public meeting on Jul. 8.

Patterson, who himself faced the difficult task of succeeding the charismatic Michael Manley, said his successor, who became Jamaica’s seventh prime minister since independence 45 years ago, has done well.

“I gave her the baton and she has been carrying it well,” he told PNP supporters.

Opinion polls consistently show that the prime minister is more popular than her main contender, Bruce Golding of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). In some instances, her level of popularity is as high as 53 percent to Golding’s 41 percent. When respondents were asked who would do a better job as prime minister, Simpson Miller again outscored Golding by 40 to 34 percent.

“A campaign designed around the personality of the party president, ‘Portia’s first term’ as she called it, assumes that Mrs. Simpson Miller would be able to hide weak and unpopular candidates and 18 years of PNP rule from a discerning electorate,” wrote newspaper columnist Claude Robinson.

Opinion polls show that despite her popularity, Portia Simpson Miller will face a tough task in regaining control of the 60-member parliament.

A poll conducted Jun. 22-25 by Don Anderson’s Market Research Services showed the PNP leading the JLP by a slim margin of 30.7 to 25 percent among likely voters.

Another pollster, Bill Johnson, had the race at 38-31 percent on Jun. 24, while the Centre for Leadership and Governance at the University of the West Indies (UWI), in a poll conducted during May 2007 and reported Jul. 8, estimates 36 percent for the ruling party against 33 percent for the JLP.

Caribbean political analyst Peter Wickham noted, however, that in a situation where the PNP is leading by a statistically insignificant five percentage points, a long campaign could come back to haunt her.

“The Jamaican PM’s actions therefore seem odd, for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the early election is intended to capture the moment as well as to catch the opposition by surprise.”

“By calling an early election, by setting the date seven weeks away, she has effectively surrendered one of the most effective tools in the arsenal of the Westminster PM,” he said, referring to the fact that the British system, which many Caribbean countries have adopted, allows the prime minister alone to name the date for a general election.

Simpson Miller is allegedly obsessed with the number seven, and just days after the election date was set, some political pundits “discovered” that the number of days spanning the announcement and the election were equal to seven squared. This opened a whole new can of worms, with commentators saying that she had invoked both religion and astrology to ensure victory.

“There is a thin line, if any, between religion and superstition,” said Dr. Orville Taylor, a senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies.

“If one believes in God, then it is easy to accept the existence of duppies [ghosts]. Nevertheless, in a society that is 90 percent African-originated, we like to self-ridicule the ‘obeahphiliacs’,” he said.

Political commentator Cedric Wilson said the ongoing debates “at best amount to nothing more than vapid religious prattle and pseudo-intellectual drivel and Mrs. Simpson Miller cannot escape some responsibility for this.”

“After all, she was the one who initiated it,” he added, noting that “the prime minister connected the event to a whole series of sevens – Jamaica’s seven National Heroes; her being the seventh Prime Minister; a nomination day set for August 7, and so on.”

“However, it would come as a big surprise if Mrs. Simpson Miller actually believes that the symbolism of seven will give her party victory. The chain of sevens, for all its mystical appeal, for all its mathematical intrigue, is nothing more than comic relief. Indeed, the real factors that will determine the outcome of the election are personality and policy.”

Opposition leader Bruce Golding has also weighed into the debate, calling now for a fixed date for general elections in Jamaica.

In a statement, Golding said that while the constitution gives the prime minister the right to advise on the dissolution of the Parliament any time he or she wishes, it is not entrenched and could be amended by a majority in Parliament.

He has promised that a JLP government would follow through on that initiative “in the context of the package of constitutional reforms that have been under protracted discussion”.

Meanwhile, the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) says it is prepared for the election, noting that since 1997, it has managed to successfully address “all of the major malpractices” including “multiple voting” and the stealing of ballot boxes.

“We have pictures on our voters’ list, so when you come into the polling station there is no doubt as to who you are,” said Danville Walker, the director of elections.

And as the campaign continues, the prime minister, who completed her first parliamentary year in 1977, is reminding voters of the socio-economic gains the country has made under the PNP and also under her brief leadership.

“Election day, election day, for Portia’s first term, for the people’s term to send a signal again that Jamaica is serious, and a woman is in charge,” she told supporters.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags

mother of learning arc