Local government elections are on the horizon, set to be held on the 26th of February, and the silly season is well and truly underway.

In one corner we have the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which now forms the Government and dominates in the municipal corporations. It is running on a platform of having built a strong economy and is stating that if given more time the benefits will trickle down to the masses. It is really a mantra of don’t change riders now when we are on such a good course.

In the other corner, we have the People’s National Party (PNP) which has, since 2016, been champing at the bit to return to the hallowed halls of power and views the local government elections as the perfect testing ground to unsettle the Government. It is running on a platform of anti-corruption, openness, and accountability, as well as passing on the benefits of the booming economy to the masses. It’s message is, essentially, choose us not because we know a better route, but are better drivers.

Under normal circumstances, the PNP should romp this one home. We have a Government that is enmeshed in corruption scandals, is accused of maintaining an economy for the bigwigs at the expense of the masses, and has seen its “crime plan” rejected by the people who scoff at Zones of Special Operations (ZOSO), States of Emergency (SOE) and remain terrified despite the drop in the murder rate.

That is, however, under normal circumstances. Despite the very real and precipitous drop in the approval ratings of the JLP overall, and Andrew Holness in particular, this has not resulted in what one would naturally expect, nor have we seen a similar rise in approval for the opposition or its leader Mark Golding.

This should not terrify the PNP during the upcoming local government elections. The JLP masses seem a bit depressed and beaten down by scandal in a manner that comes with governing, and I expect them to not turn out in masses in an election which already has low turnouts. The PNP should win this and should then use it as a platform to trumpet its success and the people’s distrust in the Government.

That, though, will be the end of the good news and will force the party to ask the really hard questions —  questions which it may not be willing to answer in an honest way.

The first question will be, why has it not swept the board, dominating in all municipal corporations? It will get a majority but far from sweeping the board, for which the PNP is salivating, will raise serious questions about party viability and messaging.

The second question is linked to the first question. If the JLP, after all this damage, still manages to come out with domination in some municipal corporations, how will the PNP be able to wrestle power away from the Government who will use these results as the road map for the general election and to determine where to shore up with investment?

The third question is the one on everyone’s lips: Do people like Mark more than Andrew and if they don’t, why? Poll after poll has shown Andrew beating Mark in favourability and while that is not the be-all and end-all, when combined with the other issues, the question becomes unavoidable and constant.

It is true that the JLP is unpopular, and it is not JLP country anymore. That moment, it seems, has come and gone, but it is not PNP country either, despite what the diehards will tell you and your eyes may have seen on nomination day.

In our own way, the people are getting wiser to the election shenanigans and are becoming more mature in how they view the lay of the land. It is true the JLP has governed over a corrupt time in Jamaica’s history, but the economy is doing well and actions — however small and toothless — have been taken and the JLP has a team which, despite what we all may say, is eminently qualified for most of the areas it leads. The JLP is also a party in total harmony, singing from the same hymn sheet and not likely to slip into positions that the leadership finds embarrassing.

Can the voting public say the same for the PNP? Would it actually act against corrupt individuals, is it presenting a cabinet that can go toe to toe on paper with the Government, can it guarantee to continue the macroeconomic miracle while bringing benefits on a microeconomic scale?

It really comes down to trust and how much you place in the parties, especially since they are so similar in terms of ideology. Has Mark Golding and the PNP done enough to exorcise the demons of the PNP in the minds of the people?

Has he been able to both rid his party of the taint of past alleged corruption while at the same time create a party that is no longer divided, and at the same time present a team which, again on paper, can match the JLP?

These were the same issues which bedevilled Peter Phillips, a man who truly believed that he would be prime minister, and instead of seeing that his mission was to clean up shop and go back to ideology, he ploughed ahead to electoral death.

Mark will never beat Andrew in terms of popularity, he is not that guy. He can, however, beat him in the optics game of competence, especially given his background in the private sector — something which people seem to eat up. However, the only way he can show that he is a better manager is by managing what he already has, and he is not doing a good job there.

The PNP, even in its darkest times, can be revved up for elections. The 2020 poll shows us that, so the outpouring of love by its most partisan of diehards means nothing.

We all know what the JLP has to offer, the past 10 years have shown us what it is and what its priorities are. Knowing that you are in bed with the devil is one thing, leaving and going into the unknown is another. It is a strong, or reckless person who goes for the unknown. Is this recklessness or desperation really what the PNP is banking on?

The party, despite attempts to show otherwise, is still at war with itself and still adrift ideologically in a world where ideology is quickly regaining its place of prominence in political discussion. Can Mark use this local government election to steady the ship and prepare the party to be a meaningful Opposition in the run-up to the general election by providing a vision of what the PNP is today and not just nip at the heels of the Government?

That is the task he still has to deal with, and in a nation which is no longer PNP land and not JLP land, it will be a hard sell, especially if there is no acknowledgement of the wrongs however good intentioned that the party oversaw.

The options are not rosy: win and still have questions hanging over your head, or lose and see the party descend into another round of open warfare. I don’t envy Mark and his situation, but he has had time to show himself and it is now up to the people to decide if what he has to offer is better than what they have.

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