The by-election in St. Mary South Eastern is for all intents and purposes an assessment of the leadership of Andrew Holness and Peter Phillips. An examination as it were of Andrew’s perceived authenticity and rootedness and Peter’s relevance and survivability. The sub-conversations that are being had are focused on the leaders of the two parties and their ability to lead their respective parties. How the leaders are handling the challenges of this by-election is seen as a litmus test for how they will manage at the helm of the party. After Monday’s election we will most certainly know which party leader will more than likely face dissent and a challenge to their leadership. Both parties have handled this particular litmus test in very different ways. One caught on the back foot too often, the other managing to set and control the political narrative with much skill and competence.
I would never have imagined that the ‘Born Yah’ narrative would have resurfaced in Jamaican politics. I never experienced it, but I heard about it as the narrative which was an important phenomenon in the relationship between Michael Manley and Edward Seaga. Only, in its early use, it was the albatross around the JLP’s neck. For the St. Mary South Eastern by-election it had the same effect on the young Dr. Alexis.
The ‘Born Yah’ phenomenon was one of the important moments of this election. Perhaps the PNP did not anticipate the impact of Dr. Shane Alexis’ nationality. The fact that they didn’t, was to their undoing. When they started to peddle their sweet shiny new Shane – young bright doctor – it looked as if they had the formula for victory. Dunn did not look as sweet or new or shiny, but within a month, Dr. Dunn became the writing on the wall , the ‘Dunn deal’ or as others have suggested, the ‘argument Dunn’, because he so easily fits. He is a part of the community, he is a son of the soil. A perfect foil for Dr. Dunn, the candidates were sold as polar opposites in respect of their connection to the community.
The JLP narrative was simple – one fit, the other didn’t, one knew the community, the other didn’t, one could relate and had connections to the community, the other didn’t. For a number of the people in St. Mary South Eastern, Dunn the hometown boy had proven himself; he ran in the 2015 election and he lost, but he stayed and worked. He grew up in the community, went away to school and came back home; he didn’t move to Kingston, he stayed. The people knew him and had come to see him as a man who would stay and work in the constituency win lose or draw.
Shane’s initial response to the citizenship issue was not smart. He had commented that he had wanted to apply for Jamaican citizenship but he was too busy and the lines were too long. Firstly, he trivialized the issue, and once again the PNP misread the political moment. This was an issue that Jamaicans were paying attention to. It could not be trivialized or downplayed. Dr. Alexis and the PNP walked right into the set up. The arguments for this particular intervention were already developed and were already being peddled. Secondly, he clearly does not understand the rural/urban dichotomy which defines Jamaican life and how rural people respond to people from Kingston and their sense of importance. In either case, he gave life to the idea that he was not ‘born yah.’
What I now know is that the JLP is mastering the art of controlling and defining the political narrative. They won the social media battle, they won the mainstream media battle, and for all intents and purposes they might have won the on-the-ground battle. The PNP has not managed to keep itself in the news in any sustained way for the entire election season. When they did manage to make the news in a positive way, their ability to sustain positive attention was almost non-existent.
Of note though, is the fact that Dr. Alexis made it to mainstream national media after issues of his nationality was brought to the fore. Even though their tends to be agreement that no-publicity is bad publicity, Dr. Alexis’ presence in the media was not positive and in many ways led to a questioning of his legitimacy. For a while his candidacy controlled the media, but it was with a narrative that served the JP more than it did the PNP. On the other occasions where the PNP had some presence in the media, they seemed to complain excessively about everything.
I fear that in many ways the PNP does not believe that the typical Jamaican voter understands the political game, and go to the polls as a lamb to the slaughter. But Jamaicans are much more politically savvy than we give them credit for. I suspect, that at the close of polls tomorrow, we will see that the JLP ran a solid campaign. Andrew Holness would have further solidified his lead of the JLP and Dr. Peter Phillips would now be forced to re -strategize.