‘Mama P’ faces prejudice, economic challenges

KINGSTON, Jan. 25 – Running on promises of job creation, economic growth and wider stakeholder consultations, Jamaica’s most popular politician and the country’s first female prime minister Portia Simpson Miller swept to power in a victory almost no one had predicted.

It is Simpson Miller’s second time as head of government. The first began in February 2006 after two very brutal battles for the leadership of the People’s National Party (PNP) to replace a retiring Percival Patterson.

A veteran of representational politics for close to 38 years, Simpson Miller, affectionately called Mama or Sista P, ran on a “People Power” platform and was confident of a win.

If most were stunned by the PNP’s victory, they were even more amazed by the margin – 42 to 21 seats – and the many incorrect polls and analyses. Even Don Anderson, the single pollster predicting a PNP win, had not envisioned the margin of victory.

Despite baggage of corruption and the Dudus Coke affair, the 39-year old Andrew Holness tried to embody a new beginning for the scandal- plagued Jamaica Labor Party (JLP).

For some, the JLP’s re-election bid revealed the class prejudice and gender biases that continue to simmer in Jamaican society. Many voters, like Gloria Clarke, view Simpson Miller’s win as a triumph for poor black women “who work hard to send their children to school.”

She epitomises the aspirations of poor Jamaicans – a young country girl who moved to inner city Kingston and who made history by reaching the highest office. Her combative but passionate style is an affront to the island’s upper classes, but endears Sista P to most ordinary islanders.

Still put off by the “demeaning” messages aimed at the PNP leader during the election campaign, Clarke noted that given her humble beginnings, her daughters would have faced the same prejudices despite their academic and other achievements.

Consultant psychiatrist Wendel Abel in an analysis of the election results also identified the negative attacks as one of the reasons for the JLP’s loss despite Holness’s youthful appeal.

“A lot of people were offended by it. It created a martyr out of Simpson Miller and actually generated sympathy and votes, especially among women, who thought that it was an unfair portrayal of Simpson Miller and insensitive towards women, especially those from certain social classes which represent a large proportion of our population,” he wrote.

In the post mortem, even JLP leaders have accepted the role negative advertising played in the defeat. Others believe it was the arrogance of the JLP leadership, its disregard for the plight of the poor, alienation of civil servants, several instances of corruption in their four years in office, as well as the government’s handling of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke’s extradition under former leader Bruce Golding.

The JLP’s blunders aside, the Simpson Miller administration must now face the reality of Jamaica 2012. The country is in deep financial trouble. Its debt to GDP ratio is 130 percent, with a fiscal deficit of six percent and a reported 12.3 percent unemployment rate.

Plans for an emergency work program to stimulate the economy are already in trouble. The depletion of a 400-million-dollar loan from the China Export Import (EXIM) Bank to rehabilitate roads and bridges under the Jamaica Development Infrastructure Program (JDIP) means funding must be found elsewhere. JDIP was intended to run from 2010 until 2015.

In the past decade, attaining an annual growth of three percent has been difficult and few believe the new administration can do better at creating jobs or growing the economy.

Given the tight fiscal space in which to operate, there is speculation about whether the PNP can keep its election promises. Management consultant and financial analyst Dennis Chung shares the belief that it is “going to be very difficult” for the government to fulfill its electoral promises.

These include renegotiating the current International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement, removing a general consumption tax on electricity bills, and renegotiating an agreement with the China EXIM Bank to reallocate some of the JDIP funds to a stimulus package.

Acknowledging the financial challenges, Works Minister Omar Davis noted, “There can be no alternative but to seek to address the need for employment in the country which has been ravaged by job losses and increased poverty.”

Negotiations with the IMF and the Chinese government have already started and the administration expects a new IMF agreement soon.

The international lending agency agreed on a 1.27-billion-dollar Standby Arrangement last year with an immediate disbursement of 640 million dollars to assist with economic reform and help Jamaica cope with the effects of the global economic downturn.

How the IMF will deal with government’s intention to delay the slashing of the public sector workforce, or how it intends to replace the revenue it will lose by removing the tax from electricity bills, is anybody’s guess.

Even as the IMF acknowledges that some programs are already in place, there has been no economic review of the country’s performance for more than a year and several targets have yet to be met.

Jamaica spends most of its earnings on debt repayment, about 30 percent on salaries, and the remaining 10 percent on everything else. Yet the burden of taxation rests heavily on a small portion of the population. Many blame an “archaic” system that discourages compliance.

By local political standards, Simpson Miller’s promises are modest. She has, however, raised the expectations of the nation’s poorest by promising to kick-start job creation through the Jamaica Emergency Employment Program (JEEP).

“The stimulus program is the right way to go, but there are other significant structural problems they face that even with the stimulus becoming a reality will not result in the maximum benefit being achieved,” Chung said.

Lacking the approximately 100 million dollars that had been expected from the JDIP, Simpson Miller has found other funding to launch a scaled-down jobs program – the first phase of the JEEP.

“The first thing they will have to do, however, is find the funding for the stimulus package, which is going to be very difficult considering underperforming fiscal revenues, worsening trade deficit and IMF restrictions,” Chung noted.

Many voters believed that the Simpson Miller team could deliver economic growth, jobs and honest government; others simply continue to hope. (IPS/GIN)