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ELECTIONWATCH - PM says economic recovery the focus now, but analyst expects polls sooner rather than later

Jamaica Gleaner 2020-06-28 12:06:00
File Jamaica Labour Party Chairman Robert Montague.

Even as political watchers zero in on August dates for the next general election, Prime Minister Andrew Holness kept his cards close to his chest as he spoke with The Sunday Gleaner a week ago, giving no hint as to when he will summon Jamaicans to the polls.

Weighing in on the matter last week, political commentator Dr Paul Ashley said that with the world’s governments, including Jamaica’s, dealt a terrible hand by COVID-19, the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) would be foolhardy not to name the election date soon.

Pointing to the impending lifting of the states of emergency next month, Ashley said this was in keeping with Holness’ commitment to not hold elections while such security initiatives were in place. The island had previously had one general election under a state of emergency – the 1976 polls in the Michael Manley (People’s National Party – PNP) era of 1972-1980.

Ashley said that the island’s two major parties would have already began canvassing the voters’ list, the final version of which will be published on July 31, with a possible August election on the cards.

“I expect the prime minister to dissolve Parliament shortly and announce the election. I expect the announcement between July 8 and 22. The 8th, when the party (JLP) was launched, or on Holness’ birthday, July 22. Politicians love anniversaries,” he theorised.

He said the only other possible window was October, the 40th anniversary of the 1980 blowout, but “the resources are just not there to stretch so far”.

“He (Holness) can’t afford to disrupt school because the children have already lost so much in the last school year. Parents are lining up for back-to-school assistance and that will be a huge hole in somebody’s bucket. Those are things that can cause big problems for a government. And it is better to get the elections out of the way, because when the problems start, we are re-elected, so we will fix them. Even if they are not fixed, we are still in government,” said the straight-talking attorney-at-law.

He noted that the Jamaican electorate has not shown kindness in recent times to governments presiding over catastrophic events. Among these are the booting from power of the Edward Seaga-led post-Hurricane Gilbert government in 1989; the Bruce Golding-led JLP administration in the wake of the Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke saga and Tivoli Gardens incursion in the 2011 polls; the PNP after then Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips’ “fixed” fiscal policies, but which led to economic hardship (2011-2016).

The current economic situation caused by COVID-19, he said, now puts the Government in a precarious position with more storm clouds gathering.

While he is aware of the increased political tempo in recent weeks, Prime Minister Andrew Holness told The Sunday Gleaner that his administration’s main priority right now is to get the country on a path to economic recovery following the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as he remained coy about the looming general and municipal elections.

“Why do people feel that an election is in the air?” Holness questioned when asked about the possibility of late-August polls. “But seriously, I know I haven’t done anything to call for an election, but you are saying that people feel that there should be an election.”

“But, look. I can’t make any comments on what you have said, but, we are still in the COVID-19 pandemic; the economic situation is very serious. We haven’t started [to feel the full] impact of the pandemic on the global economy and on the local economy. And the truth is, we don’t want an elevated political atmosphere to impact upon the economic recovery programme,” Holness said.

“I am still trying to make sure the Government is not distracted on politics and elections. And observing carefully, yes, you are perfectly right. There is this intensified politicisation of issues, again crime is being politicised; water is becoming an issue, everything is becoming very political, and it does make it difficult for the Government to try and focus on the economic recovery.”

The JLP leader added: “Economic recovery is absolutely important. So, I take your perspective into consideration, but I won’t say anything about a date or whether or not an election is in the air or anything like that, but I take it into perspective.”

... Getting ducks in a row

JLP Chairman Robert Montague admitted to The Sunday Gleaner that the party was advanced with its electoral preparations.

“We are far ahead of the plan of action we set ourselves in December following conference. As a result, I can tell you that almost all of our candidates for elections are in place and many are well advanced, with most of the required processes completed. In some instances, only a sign-off from the party is required,” Montague said on Friday. “Interviews and background checks have been completed; it’s just the final stage of, say, a three-stage process is left.”

Only four of the 63 constituencies across the island had no named JLP standard-bearers up to Friday. They are St Ann North East, which was represented by the late Shahine Robinson; St Andrew East Central, now represented by PNP President and Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips; St Andrew South East, represented by PNP General Secretary Julian Robinson; and St Thomas Eastern, represented by the PNP’s Dr Fenton Ferguson, who will be seeking his seventh-straight term.

“We continue to honour the memory of our dear departed Shahine Robinson in St Ann North East, and we will not name any candidate for that constituency until she is laid to rest. That process has not started,”Montague said.

He revealed that the JLP still has some divisions at the municipal level without representatives in Kingston and St Andrew and Area Council Two.

Last week, Director of Elections Glasspole Brown said the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) was “well advanced in recruiting the number of election day workers in all categories, and we are also training personnel”, revealing that about 30,000 workers were needed.

He previously told The Sunday Gleaner that the EOJ would be able to hold the general election in August if it began training this month. He also indicated that the office had received the $2.4 billion it requested for the staging of both the local government polls, constitutionally due in November, and the general election, due next February. The staging of both polls simultaneously, he pointed out, could save the country in excess of $700 million.

And while the Representation of the People Act requires a minimum of 16 and maximum of 23 days between nomination and election day, Brown said he would need a 32-day window if both were to be held simultaneously.

“I can’t tell you what I have or have not been asked about regarding the two-in-one elections. The Parliament would be the best indicator of that. If the issue goes to Parliament and the required [legislative] amendments are made, I would say that would be your best indicator,” Brown said last week.

Robinson said the PNP was also busy preparing for the elections.

“We will be ready for the elections whenever they are called, whether together or separately. The majority of our local representatives are in place. The party leader will be having a meeting with councillors on Sunday,” the PNP general secretary said.

The PNP has already settled on its slate of 63 candidates for the impending general election.

In recent days, the party also moved to embrace former leadership challenger Peter Bunting, naming him co-campaign director along with Kingston East and Port Royal Member of Parliament (MP) Phillip Paulwell. St Ann South East MP Lisa Hanna was named campaign spokesperson, while Mark Golding (St Andrew South) and Senator Damion Crawford will work on the party’s manifesto.