Editorial | Peter Phillips’ dilemma
Peter Bunting mightn’t have won the main prize, the presidency of the People’s National Party (PNP), but from a strategic and tactical standpoint, he achieved much of what he set out to accomplish. For having come so close to unseating Peter Phillips, by 76 votes, or 2.7 per cent of the delegates who voted in Saturday’s election, he has established himself as the clear front-runner for the job when Dr Phillips goes.
That, at one level, is bad for the incumbent and good for Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). But whether the advantage to the JLP actualises, or the extent to which it does so, will depend, to a large degree, on the character of Mr Bunting and his followers, and Dr Phillips’ skill to, at the same time, impose his authority, while attempting to heal the post-election wounds by operating a big-tent, inclusive PNP. In other words, he faces the challenge of keeping the Bunting faction of the party onside.
At the same time, there is the larger picture of resolving what kind of party the PNP wants to be in the 21st century, which is to say, the philosophy upon which it stands and the direction in which it proposes, given the opportunity, to take Jamaica. Nothing in this regard was really settled on Saturday. At least, not in a definitive fashion.
In relation to Peter Bunting’s strategic and practical gains, it ought to be seen against the backdrop of his decision, two years ago, at the time of Portia Simpson Miller’s induced retirement, to forgo, in the face of internal pressure, a challenge for the party’s leadership and, therefore, Dr Phillips’ elevation by acclamation.
That, however, didn’t mean that Mr Bunting gave up on his ambition to lead the party. He, however, faced the problem of time, age and the unknowns of fortune. Mr Bunting turned 59 on Saturday. Dr Phillips will soon be 70.
Jamaica’s next general election, constitutionally, is due in 18 months, which, if the PNP were to win and Dr Phillips served a full term, Mr Bunting’s next realistic shot at the leadership would be when he is close to 66, near Dr Phillips’ age when he assumed the presidency. By this time, in an open contest and if he has the will for the fight, Mr Bunting will likely face competition from a slew of younger challengers, some of whom may not now even be on the radar.
MAJOR DIFFICULTY AHEAD
From that standpoint, Mr Bunting’s challenge was a calculated and manageable risk. If he had unseated Dr Phillips, he would have had the prize. A bad defeat would have irreparably tarnished his brand, sending him permanently to the sidelines. Mr Bunting’s strong performance, however, keeps him well in front of all other potential contenders should the PNP lose the next election constitutionally due in 2021. Therein lies a potentially major difficulty for Mr Bunting and the PNP.
The essential argument of the Bunting campaign, often delivered virulently from the platforms by his campaign manager, Dayton Campbell, was not about Mr Bunting’s great success as a businessman, but that Dr Phillips couldn’t lead the PNP to victory against Mr Holness. The concomitant subliminal messaging was of an old, tired Dr Phillips against a youthful and energetic Prime Minister Holness. There were burlesque spectacles of middle-age men, in tight-fitting clothes, prancing across campaign stages to dancehall music. Mr Bunting’s campaign offered little that was deep and philosophical, or that sharply contrasted the PNP against the JLP.
The strategy had significant success. Therein lies the dilemma. The campaign, from either side, would have caused significant damage to the PNP. The sustained assault on Dr Phillips has probably, in the context of the larger electorate, weakened him. Further, having painted Dr Phillips as a leader of ineptitude, and given the presumption that Mr Bunting retains his ambition to lead, there are serious questions about how much he will be willing to give in support of the PNP’s, and Dr Phillips’, electoral success.
Peter Phillips, on the other hand, has to recognise the weight Mr Bunting now carries in the PNP. His is both a delicate and Herculean task to manage the authority of his leadership, while recognising the strength of the Bunting function as he tries to make the PNP into a viable election force, carrying a single message.