January 15, 2012
Last month, in an otherwise ordinary election debate, Jamaica’s candidates for prime minister were asked whether they agree with former prime minister Bruce Golding’s infamous stance against having openly gay people in his cabinet.
After then prime minister Andrew Holness of the Jamaican Labour Party hedged on the question, opposition leader Portia Simpson Miller gave an answer previously unthinkable for a Jamaican prime ministerial candidate.
“I do not support the position of the former prime minister, because people should be appointed to positions based on their ability to manage and to lead,” she said. “No one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.”
Simpson Miller also called for a conscience vote in parliament on Jamaica’s “buggery laws,” which criminalize male homosexual acts.
The unprecedented comments stunned observers, created a firestorm and brought LGBT rights — long a sensitive issue in a country with a reputation for homophobia — to the forefront of the election.
Clive Mullings, the energy minister under the JLP, warned that “God brought down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah.” He was not re-elected. Another JLP member openly mused whether international gay rights organizations were funding the PNP’s campaign.
Some observers predicted Simpson Miller’s stance would spell her demise in the Dec. 29 election. But despite polls that showed the two parties neck and neck, her People’s National Party coasted to victory, collecting 41 seats to the JLP’s 22. The result made the conservative JLP the first one-term administration in the island nation’s modern history.
“It showed how courageous she is,” said Glenda Simms, a renowned feminist who has been an adviser to Simpson Miller. “She knew they could turn it around against her, and they tried. … But she’s not prepared to be a part of that history of discrimination. … She’s going to do whatever she can to break it.”
Simpson Miller, 66, is turning heads by taking aggressive stances on sometimes contentious issues, occasionally going against her own party. (The gay rights issue was not a part of their platform.)
The woman many Jamaicans refer to as “Sista P” has said she intends for Jamaica to jettison the monarchy and become a republic, taking its final — if symbolic — step toward independence. The country celebrates 50 years of independence from Britain in August.
At her swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 5, Simpson Miller argued the Caribbean Court of Justice(CCJ) should be Jamaica’s final court of appeal. It would replace the judicial committee of the Privy Council, a reconstituted panel of judges from the British supreme court. The Trinidad-based CCJ has been underused because Jamaica, Trinidad and others haven’t adopted it.
Holness, 39, called the general election in early December only weeks after being sworn in as prime minister. He took the job after his predecessor Bruce Golding resigned over the handling of the so-called “Dudus affair.”
After spending months fighting gang leader Christopher “Dudus” Coke’s extradition to New York on drug trafficking charges, Golding’s administration bowed to U.S. pressure in May 2010 and sent police and the military into his Kingston compound to take him into custody. The ensuing gun battle caused 73 civilian deaths, and the JLP was widely condemned.
Experts said voter outrage over the Dudus affair and concerns about the economy trumped other issues. Meanwhile, Simpson Miller’s comments about LGBT rights are resonating with the public.
“People have taken it as a signal from the prime minister that there is a new era, a new attitude that needs to be embraced,” said Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith, a political science professor at York College of the City University of New York and an expert in Caribbean politics.
Simpson Miller was Jamaica’s prime minister from March 2006 to September 2007. She won the job in an internal party vote when her predecessor P.J. Patterson retired. She narrowly lost her 2007 re-election bid and became leader of the opposition.
She was born in the rural town of Wood Hall in St. Catherine Parish and was first elected to parliament in 1976 with the PNP. She has served in various cabinet positions since 1989.
Glenda Simms was president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women in 1996 when Simpson Miller, then minister of labour, social security and sport, asked her to return to Jamaica to head the country’s Bureau of Women’s Affairs.
Simms returned, impressed by Simpson Miller as “someone who really wanted to make a difference.”
Simms remembers accompanying Simpson Miller to see people in a fire-ravaged inner-city neighbourhood and thinking she was destined to be prime minister one day.
“I thought: ‘This is the kind of leader that everyone needs.’ She listened, she understood their lives and she did not distance herself from them.”
But Simpson Miller, whose campaign emphasized job creation, might have to resort to tough fiscal austerity measures to get her country’s stagnant economy on track. Jamaica is saddled with a public debt load of more than 120 per cent of its GDP — one of the world’s largest debt-to-GDP ratios. The island’s unemployment rate is 12.9 per cent, up from 9.8 per cent in 2007.
Its agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which supplied it with $1.27 billion in 2010, expires in May and must be renegotiated. Those talks, though difficult, appear to be an administration priority: Finance Minister Peter Phillips is due to meet with an IMF team next week.
Simpson Miller’s election continues an anti-incumbent trend in the region. St. Lucia’s ruling party was voted out earlier in the year, and Guyana’s longtime governing party lost significant legislative ground.
It’s a sign that the region’s voters — usually fiercely loyal to one party or another — are feeling less attached, Griffith said. “People are rethinking how they should do their voting and whether they should vote at all.”
Despite the lopsided seat count, Simpson Miller was not elected on a groundswell of public support. The 53 per cent voter turnout is Jamaica’s lowest ever for a general election except that in 1983, when the PNP boycotted the vote. The country’s voter turnout hovered around 85 per cent in the 1980s.
Alissa Trotz, director of the Caribbean studies program at the University of Toronto, said the result shows an overall disaffection with the political process in Jamaica. She said she hopes the PNP recognizes its 41 seats don’t overwhelmingly translate to a majority mandate, given the low turnout.
“It presents Portia with the challenge of reaching across the aisle,” she said.
But Simpson Miller may not always find a willing partner on the other side. In his concession speech on election night, Holness declared, “Our campaign for the next government starts tomorrow.”