BY GARFIELD MYERS—
Amid an air of gloom and unease, long-awaited dates for departure of Portia Simpson Miller as president of the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) as well as a delegates’ vote next month for her replacement were announced yesterday.
Though Simpson Miller addressed the conference indicating her imminent departure, it was General Secretary Julian Robinson who told National Executive Council (NEC) members at a closed meeting, and then journalists, that a special delegates conference to select Simpson Miller’s replacement as party president will be held on March 26, 2017.
Robinson said Simpson Miller will demit office as Opposition leader on April 2. Before that she will make her presentation to the parliamentary budget debate as Opposition leader. Simpson Miller, 71, will continue as Member of Parliament for St Andrew South Western.
Former Finance Minister Peter Phillips, the only one thus far to have put himself forward as a candidate for PNP leadership, is widely expected to be unopposed as the delegates’ choice to replace Simpson Miller. Nominations open today and will close on Friday at midday, Robinson said.
After the meeting Phillips rejected suggestions that the transition process had taken too long.
“No. It is what it is, and this is the right time because it is the time,” Phillips told the
Journalists on the outside straining to hear the Opposition leader as she addressed party executives in the closed meeting discerned a sense of discontent on her part as she reflected on her service over 40 years to party and country. She entered politics as a councillor in 1974, and has been president of the PNP since the departure of P J Patterson in 2006. She was prime minister from 2006 until the PNP’s defeat by the Jamaica Labour Party in September 2007, and again served in that capacity following victory at the polls in December 2011 until defeat last February.
Immediately after the meeting, party stalwart Dr DK Duncan — a former MP, general secretary of the 1970’s, and Cabinet minister, confirmed Simpson Miller’s discontent.
Asked about the mood of the meeting, Duncan said his impression from listening to the Opposition leader was that there had been “pressure” on her to decide “the actual date of the resignation or the start of the transition”. He said he was disappointed because of “what appears to be inordinate pressure on the party leader. She does not deserve that sort of pressure.”
Duncan appeared to suggest that media reports, including a recent Sunday Observer piece
which said the lack of a timetable for Simpson Miller’s departure had the party in limbo, contributed to the situation.
“An article in the Observer last week triggered a certain kind of response… very sad,” he said.
But others, including close Simpson Miller ally, party chairman Bobby Pickersgill, dismissed talk about pressure.
“Was she pressured?” journalists asked at the press conference immediately after the NEC.
“No,” replied Pickersgill, who was flanked by Robinson and Vice Chairman Tony Hylton. “The answer to that is ‘no’.” Pickersgill did say, however, that he was “saddened” by the manner of her departure.
Hylton argued that it was understandable for there to be a level of disappointment and for the Opposition leader to be “emotional”. After 40 years of service to the party and country, it would have been ideal for Simpson Miller to leave as prime minister, he said.
“That didn’t happen,” added Hylton. n the outside, leading PNP members expressed sadness, even while being thankful that the party was now ready to “move on” after a period of perceived dormancy, having lost the parliamentary elections by one seat last February and the local government elections more decisively in November.
None showed conflicting emotions more than Dr Karl Blythe, the one-time Cabinet minister who formally challenged the leadership of Simpson Miller last September in a bid to speed up her departure.
“I am a little sad about how it’s going. I …feel that there is some unhappiness in the way she has stepped down. I know it’s a necessary thing. It should have happened before, but today I don’t want to say much…” said Blythe.
Pressed as to why he should feel unhappy, Blythe said, “I am trying to reason with myself as to why I feel that way…”
He quickly scotched any thought that he would now be contemplating putting himself forward for nomination.
“I am here to support my party in any way they want, but not as leader,” said Blythe. “I wanted and I knew it was time for her to go, but when you say goodbye, you want to say it in an atmosphere [of] comradeship and I couldn’t see it today,” he lamented.
Former Cabinet minister and General Secretary Peter Bunting, who had ‘tested the waters’ before deciding last year not to put his hat in the ring as a presidential candidate, also expressed sadness, but was clear the time had come.
“There is the natural sadness to see her go, [but] I think there is also a sense that the transition should not be dragged out…” he said.
The party needed “a quick and smooth transition” said Bunting while emphasising that he had no regrets in deciding not to contest the leadership.
Former Cabinet Minister John Junor saw the set timetable for transition as a “positive move”.
“… I hope the process will be seamless. The party is in a better place in the sense that there is at least some certainty. Nature abhors a vacuum…,” he told journalists.
Opposition Senator Floyd Morris hailed Simpson Miller for her “tremendous” contribution to party and country. “I am very appreciative of her efforts, her tremendous legacy and contribution to the PNP,” he said.
Robinson told journalists that an immediate task in the months ahead will be to organise and streamline the party for any eventualities, including elections.
When asked whether he would continue as chairman of the party, Pickersgill was cagey. “That remains to be seen,” he insisted. Pickersgill is in his 25th year as PNP chairman.