Jamaica Gleaner / The People’s National Party (PNP) has paid dearly for its suicide mission of fielding a non-Jamaican citizen to represent Jamaicans; the Shane Alexis bomb blowing away any chance the party had of taking South-East St Mary.
Cliff Hughes called this “the most consequential by-election” in Jamaica’s history and such it was, handing Andrew Holness another seat to his razor-thin majority in Parliament and providing a crushing defeat to newly minted President of the Peoples National Party, Dr Peter Phillips. It was Dr Phillips himself who had characterised this by-election as a referendum vote on the leadership of Andrew Holness and his Government. If that were so, the people who had a say have spoken and spoken most clearly and decisively.
The PNP’s Basil Waite said he had never seen an election in which the PNP was so outspent. Since their bitter loss, PNP supporters have been saying that this was a grand “buy-election”- that essentially the voters acted as electoral prostitutes, selling to the highest bidders. Aside from what could be seen as a clear and unmistakable insult to the people of South-East St Mary, there is a practical calculation the people made. Everard Warmington, as usual, stuffed his foot in his mouth, but he merely echoed what the people knew: That if you want help for your grossly underdeveloped constituency , voting for the Opposition party in a by-election is not very smart.
Party funders were also very pragmatic. They saw support for the JLP as sensible and strategic, for the party has state power with all its largesse. This made the JLP flush with funds and they used it liberally. But we have to ask: What does it say about our people if they are so easily bribed that, irrespective of the issues, they will sell their votes to those willing to pay the most? What does it say about our citizenry? What does it say about the sacrifice of all those who fought for Universal Adult Suffrage?
When even party workers on both sides, it is alleged, were sticking up their parties for money and benefits and threatening not to vote or bring out voters until they were compensated, what does this say about the health of our democracy and the quality of political education in parties? Especially for the PNP, a party traditionally strong on ideology and values; one where political ideals were clearly set far above personal interests?
If the PNP is right that the people of South East St Mary sold their votes and that Monday’s election results merely showed who could buy more, then the Jamaican Political Project is in a sorry state.
This by-election showed the power of symbolism. It also revealed, to pluck a word from the Marxist lexicon, the “contradictions” in the society. In practical terms, citizenship does not mean one damn thing to the average Jamaican. What matters is what he can get-from wherever and whomever. If most Jamaicans had an opportunity to exchange their Jamaican citizenship for American or Canadian citizenship, they would do so without batting an eyelid . Very few of us would be left here.
Citizenship means didly squat. In rural Jamaica, issues about road, water, general infrastructure, jobs and scarce benefits mean more than national identity. But don’t be fooled by that. The issue of national identity is always there, somewhere lurking, ready to be exploited by the politically clever. To that man in Belfield or Annotto Bay, that the PNP could have the “idacity” to run a man who not only was not born in the constituency, but who was not even born in Jamaica or would spend the time to wait in a line to get his citizenship, was an unforgivable insult and “liberty taking”. And especially considering their intense ‘My Leader Born Ya’ campaign against a Jamaican who gave up his US citizenship to serve the Jamaican people! Dem had a nerve!
When finally that ‘Struggle’ Martin song could play on a JLP platform after over 40 years, you know the JLP had found the magic elixir for South East St Mary.
The JLP masterfully exploited that citizenship issue and framed the narrative. In rural Jamaica, place and belonging still count for something. It might not be manifest every day and rural folk will make pragmatic decisions, but clever politicians can always exploit identity issues. Trump did that in America the JLP did that here (and both were successful). The PNP committed a blunder of the highest magnitude.
I believe the news report that Peter Philips did not know about Alexis’ non-Jamaican status. I can’t see how the seasoned political scientist and nationalist Phillips would have ever offered the electorate a non-Jamaican to represent them. Daryl Vaz mined political gold when he outed the good doctor, turning him from Shane Alexis to Shame Alexis. Daryl Vaz did his work. The PNP Secretariat failed miserably in theirs.
Having been stuck with Alexis and finding out too late about his status, the PNP had to go ahead and defend the indefensible, splitting hairs about his eligibility to be in Parliament. It was never an issue about legality or even about morality, strictly. It was about symbolism. But as this election proved , symbolism is still important. Ishawna learnt her lesson bitterly, too. Hardcore Dancehall people and millennials are not known for their cultural consciousness or cultural nostalgia . But Ishawna could not believe what would hit her when she dared insult cultural icon Miss Lou.
Social media addicts might wallow in American cultural products and gadgets but deep inside them somewhere is that symbolic attachment to Jamaica. It comes out at the right time. The Observer doesn’t get it. In a naïve editorial on Thursday, ‘No Requiem for Dr Shane Alexis’, the paper says, “No one seriously believes that he (Alexis) is not a Jamaican”. The Observer is dead wrong, and Monday’s decisive electoral defeat should have been a telling rejoinder to the Observer’s make-believe.
While the Observer is right that in reality Dr Alexis can argue “that he is more Jamaican than many who have the passport and other documents establishing that they are citizens”, for people that symbolism of that little piece of paper showing citizenship is crucially important. Perhaps it is because we are in a Protestant country that we don’t grasp the significance of symbols and symbolism. It is deeply important and has always been in mankind’s history, as cultural anthropologists have pointed out.
And the symbolism of a prime minister’s walking barefooted, and with pants rolled up like a countryman, is a powerful symbolism of humility, down-to-earthiness (literally) and being “grounds”. (Spinning the hot dancehall hits as ‘Selector Andrew’ also powerfully connected with the youth. )
The grassroots JLP deftly exploited symbolism and out-maneuvered the helicopter-flying PNP. Dr Phillips could not help his non-Jamaican candidate. Nor could Peter Bunting, for that matter. Those comrades who are using this to derail Phillips and promote others should not be entertained by non-partisan people. The essential problem is not Phillips’ weaknesses . It is Andrew Holness’ enormous strengths.
I have been writing for years that people underestimate Andrew Holness to their own peril and embarrassment. In 2015 when his doubters abounded, including in his own party, I wrote in my February 1 column : “There is this perception, this narrative that Andrew Holness is just not ready , that he is not appealing, that he does not have the wow factor, that he is just not hot . People don’t seem to believe Andrew Holness or feel him. I don’t share their view… I don’t share Mr Holness critics’ negative assessment of him.”
In my column of September 17 this year (PNP Firm Under Phillips ) I said after praising Phillips, “But Phillips has one major obstacle: Andrew Holness. Andrew’s major asset …is his character and personality. His emotional intelligence. His eagerness to listen and his respect for civil society make him a hardy opponent. Andrew Holness is not likely to outrage people”.
Yes , Andrew spent on bushing and announced a multi-million toad improvement programme. He got loads of cash to spend and his machinery proved formidable, but if Andrew were a leader who outraged people and whom people disliked , Norman Dunn could not win. Andrew won that election. The worst thing for the PNP to do is to continue to underestimate him.