Source: Jamaica Gleaner
There was little in the result of yesterday’s parliamentary election that was surprising. The People’s National Party (PNP) was mauled nearly as badly as the opinion polls had predicted. With a low voter turnout of 37.23 per cent, it surrendered 15 of the 29 seats with which it had entered the contest. Some of its biggest names were ejected from the House, including Peter Bunting, who, only a year ago, challenged Dr Peter Phillips for the leadership of the party.
The governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), on the other hand, appears to be ending with 49 seats, a 44 per cent increase over its previous number. It won 57 per cent of the popular vote. Clearly, those Jamaicans who chose to cast their ballots gave the JLP a clear mandate to lead. It is now up to Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his administration to exercise that mandate judiciously, careful to avoid arrogance or presumption of the right to arbitrary behaviour. For there is much and urgent work for Jamaica to do that will require national consensus, including support from the Opposition.
At the same time, the circumstance demands deep introspection from the PNP as it considers its future and who will lead the party. The inclination, of course, will be for recrimination and blame for the debacle, much of which will fall on the head of Dr Phillips, who, last September, merely squeaked past Mr Bunting’s challenge.
The claim of Dr Phillips’ detractors – as some would have argued yesterday, confirmed – was that the 70-year-old PNP president couldn’t lead the party to victory. His critics positioned him as dull, boring, and incapable of connecting with young voters, especially when matched against a youthful and energetic JLP leader. That internal complaint, of course, expanded on the narrative of the JLP and failed to capitalise on Dr Phillips’ past successes in government, including his pivotal role as finance minister in the 2012 to 2016 administration, of returning Jamaica’s economy to macro-economic stability.
Whichever way the election went, three significant matters were bound to be on the national agenda. Two of them, which are interrelated, are immediate challenges faced by the Government. The other concerns the future of the PNP, or, more specifically, who eventually leads it.
With respect to the administration’s docket, nothing is more urgent than regaining a grip on the COVID-19 epidemic, which has been expanding rapidly since mid-August, even as it attempts to kick-start the economy. In the early days of the pandemic, the Holness administration won credit for holding the virus at bay for a long time and keeping the numbers relatively low after the disease came to the island.
But that achievement came at a heavy economic price. Like most countries, the Government closed the island’s borders, hastening the collapse of the critical tourism industry, and accompanied this with a partial shutdown of the domestic economy. The upshot: a projected decline in gross domestic product this year by as much as 10 per cent. It could be 2023 before output returns to this year’s levels.
Unfortunately, however, the administration was not able to maintain a tight lid on the coronavirus as it began to reopen the borders; relaxed the domestic shutdown, including on leisure activities; and was less than vigilant in the enforcement of the regulations aimed at slowing the spread of the disease. Indeed, the numbers of the past fortnight tell the story. Over that period, there were 1,631 cases of COVID-19, a jump of 137 per cent. Twenty-seven people have now died from the virus.
The administration has to regain a handle on this matter but in a manner that allows Jamaica, at least into the medium term, to coexist with COVID-19 while regenerating the economy. That calls for a delicate balancing act, which, at times, will require tough decisions. This is best achieved when there is broad trust in the Government. But even strong mandates, we remind Mr Holness, can quickly dissipate in the face of arrogance.
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