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Elections are like musical chairs

Michael
Burke

Thursday, October 12, 2017

So the real focus on the triple by-election scheduled for Monday, October 30, 2017 is on St Mary South Eastern, where it is a neck-and-neck battle between Dr Norman Dunn, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) candidate, and Dr Shane Alexis, the People's National Party (PNP) candidate.

To clear up a bit of directional confusion, St Mary South Eastern is ironically named, as it has a totally northern boundary. It is not quite a paradox because it can be explained. Port Maria and west of it is to the north of St Mary, but the eastern part of the St Mary coastline inclines to the south.

Elections are won by organisation, not by issues. The first part of organising for elections is in the canvassing of citizens to get them on the voters' list. The second part is to get them out on Election Day.

Initially, the PNP's Norman Manley was no match for the charisma of the JLP's Alexander Bustamante (Sir Alexander as of 1955), so the only way to defeat Bustamante was to be more organised.

“Busta” won Kingston Western by a landslide in 1944. But he went to Clarendon in 1949 because the PNP's Ken Hill had out-organised him, not because of Group 69 as Dorlan Francis suggested two weeks ago. Political feasibility, rather than fear of harm, caused Bustamante to “tek weh himself”.

By 1949 the PNP, for the most part, had been the more organised of the major political parties. While the JLP won the 1949 General Election, the PNP received more votes. And whenever the PNP has lost an election since, it has been mostly as a result of divisions within its ranks which affect the organisational effort.

The PNP won in 1955. By 1958, at the time of the elections to the Federal West Indian Parliament, the PNP only won five of the 17 federal seats in Jamaica. It was then that Norman Manley hired the then 23-year-old P J Patterson to do some organising. When Patterson reported that there were more PNP supporters on the voters' list than JLP, Norman Manley called a snap election in July 1959 and won.

In 1962 the PNP itself was divided on the matter of the Federation, which explains its defeat. In 1967 the PNP lost again, but complained that the voters' list was inadequate.

But in 1967 there were three by-elections, two in May and one in October. Two JLP MPs died (Sir Donald Sangster and Elletson Wakeland) and the JLP retained the seats — one in Clarendon Northern and one in Trelawny Northern. On October 24, 1967, a by-election was held in St Elizabeth South Eastern after the PNP's B B Coke had died. Vivian Blake (not the shower posse leader) retained the seat for the PNP by a margin of 387 votes over the JLP's Glen Mitchell.

What Norman Manley said at a PNP summit in November 1967 was instructive. He spoke of Blake and his son Michael Manley having the longest legs in the PNP and using them to walk everywhere in St Elizabeth South Eastern to bring out the voters.

Coke, who won on the JLP ticket in 1944, lost to the JLP's Donald Sangster (Sir Donald as of 1967) by only 48 votes in 1949, although an independent candidate. The PNP knew that its voter base alone could not win the by-election with Coke off the scene. Yet they defeated the JLP candidate who was born and raised in St Elizabeth.

As popular as Michael Manley was in the 1970s, the PNP won heavily because it was organised. While in the 1980 General Election the JLP was clearly more organised than the PNP, there were serious ideological differences in the PNP. The PNP did not contest the 1983 General Election as it protested that the voters' list was three years old.

The composition of a voters' list is crucial to winning an election.

In the 1990s, when the PNP reigned for four terms, the JLP's organisational effort was wracked by a split between who was for and who was against Edward Seaga. The JLP, therefore, could not compete against the PNP then.

In 2007 when the PNP lost, there were differences between the supporters of Portia Simpson Miller and Peter Phillips. This affected its organisation. As soon as the differences were patched up, the PNP went back to winning ways in 2011.

The PNP's defeat in 2016, albeit by one seat, had nothing to do with Andrew Holness's house, the fact that that they did not debate, or because of Andrew Holness promise of a tax rebate. Of course, the official PNP response to its defeat was that it had to do with the issues named, but was it? The PNP's organisation was crippled by the mysterious disappearance of party funds, which no political party would publicise about itself.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness made the amusing statement that all St Mary General Election got from PNP was “pip pip” as Harry Douglas would toot his horn while passing through the constituency. Of course that was an exaggeration, and on September 3 Harry Douglas, in a letter published in The Gleaner, gave account of his stewardship. But if all they got from Harry Douglas was “pip pip”, how else did he win four times but by efficient organisation?

Robert Montague is reported to have spoken about bringing in voters who live outside but who are registered voters in the constituency, an old practice. Are those voters registered more than once by being enumerated in other constituencies also?

An old trick is to keep key opponents in other constituencies from defending their candidate by saying that they are in 'trouble' in another constituency, hence Montague's reference to St Andrew South Western and the internal PNP rivalry.

Fifteen years ago Omar Davies' “run wid it” statement was criticised by the JLP. The JLP's Shahine Robinson won a by-election in St Ann North Eastern and the PNP took that as a warning to prepare for the 2002 General Election. Now the JLP plans to “run wid it” by fixing the main road to Annotto Bay. That is politics.

The child who wins a musical chairs contest has to be very swift. In politics, political parties get more voters than their rivals to vote before closing time, also by being very swift, indeed like athletes. Elections are like musical chairs.

 

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