Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
The Troubles of the Jamaica Labour Party
By Dionne Jackson Miller, IPS, 26 November 1999
MONTEGO BAY, Nov 26 (IPS) - The Opposition Jamaica Labour Party approaches its annual conference this weekend facing continuing leadership tussles which could affect the party's ability to position itself as a viable alternative to the ruling Peoples National Party.
National attention is focused on the conference, although the immediate battle is not for the leadership of the party, but for the second-tier position of Deputy Leader.
General Secretary Audley Shaw, one of the contenders, is now seen by many as the logical choice to succeed party Leader Edward Seaga, since the departure of former party Chairman Bruce Golding, who left the JLP four years ago to form the National Democratic Movement.
Shaw now holds the high profile shadow portfolio of Finance, and giving him additional clout is the fact that he is one of 10 JLP members who won their seats in the 1997 election.
His opponent, Pearnel Charles had enjoyed high popularity ratings in the JLP administration of the 1980s, but fell from grace after being involved in the so-called Gang of Five which was accused of plotting to oust Seaga in the early 1990s.
Charles also lost much of his influence after failing to carry home a seat in the last three elections.
The two men are widely known to have ambitions to lead the party, and winning a key party position could place them favourably in the succession race.
Although Shaw is now general secretary of the party, a nationally recognised administrative post, observers say becoming one of the party's four deputy leaders would push him closer to the throne.
"Anyone at that rank is in the first line (to become) party leader," says political analyst Errol Richards. "The winner will have a 25-metre start on the other person."
The contest for Deputy Leader heated up after it became obvious that an anticipated battle for the party leadership was not going to materialise.
Expectations that Edward Seaga, who has headed the party for 25 years, could finally face a serious challenge on the conference floor were torpedoed when former Deputy Leader Mike Henry declared that he would wait a year to mount his leadership campaign. y Henry, once one of the most powerful figures in the party ran afoul of the JLP's hierarchy in July when he publicly criticised Seaga, ostensibly over a change in seating arrangements in Parliament, but which he said was related to the undemocratic method of decision making in the Labour Party.
His statements had followed a round of bickering in the local media, after which the party had forbidden anyone other than designated spokespersons to speak publicly about internal party issues.
Citing Henry for indiscipline, the JLP then stripped him of his deputy leadership status and barred him from holding office for one year.
But following widespread speculation that Henry was finally prepared to take on Seaga, the party made it known that it would lift the ban, apparently in the interest of quickly settling the leadership question, and trying to repair its fractured public image.
However, facing the need to mobilise nation-wide support in the space of a month, Henry backed down, saying that he did not wish to see the party bend its rules for one man.
Cynics say however, that Henry needs the year to put his political house in order and give him a fighting chance to challenge the entrenched Seaga.
In the meantime, cries are growing outside the party for Seaga to step down and opinion polls consistently show the party leader less popular than Prime Minister Percival Patterson.
But party officials insist that the JLP is satisfied with Seaga's leadership, despite his having led the party to three successive defeats in the general elections of 1989, 1993 and 1997.
Now haunted by a previously stated vow to retire in January 2000, Seaga has decided to ask the party for a vote of confidence at the annual conference, which observers say he cannot lose.
He used a similar tactic four years ago, when some party members from western Jamaica tried to oust him from leadership.
One party official told IPS that a vote of confidence from the delegates this weekend will help unify the party.
"The nature of the JLP as a party driven by strong personalities demands that the leadership is always strong," the party official says.
"The leadership is the glue of the party, so if you chip away at the leadership, you chip away at the vitality itself, so we need to bring back a strong leadership, and you can't build it on the older men."
The ages of Henry and Charles, both in their sixties, have been cited by Seaga, himself in his late sixties, as strikes against them. In an unusual move for a party leader, Seaga has thrown his weight behind Shaw, saying that Charles belongs to the past.
Seaga's support is somewhat balanced by that of the JLP affiliated Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), whose President General, former Prime Minister High Shearer has endorsed Pearnel Charles.
Charles' campaign is also being managed by would-be leader Mike Henry.
University of the West Indies lecturer in the department of government, Allison Anderson says this election is a sign of things to come.
"What I sense is that there is a feeling that Seaga is going to go, and that now is the time to force the hand of the Jamaica Labour Party to take up a kind of approach which would have popular appeal," she says.
"It suits the dissidents to become martyrs because they are the ones who will benefit when Mr. Seaga does go. So that even if Audley Shaw wins on Sunday, that may not necessarily mean that at the point at which Seaga goes, others may not say that I have stood aside, I have been martyred, now it's my turn."
Others say that the questions of party unity and leadership will never be settled unless Seaga signals his intention to retire, an announcement which does not appear to be imminent.
"The JLP has been performing very dismally electorally for a number of years, and every time it is usually (said) that it is bogus voting why the party loses," says former JLP Mayor of Montego Bay Shalman Scott. "Every time there's an election coming up Mr. Seaga is going, after the election there is a different story."
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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