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East Portland – When The Safe Seat Becomes Unsafe

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In Jamaican politics,  a safe seat is often taken for granted. But what happens when the safe seat becomes unsafe? For the previously unseated holder, losing is a painful wakeup call that even safe seats can be lost. For the newly seated victor, winning is a euphoric dream come true – even safe seats can be won!

Clearly, the results in the recently held by-elections in East Portland showed a safe seat changing hands. From the Peoples National Party (PNP’s) 30-year grip to the relatively untested hands of a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) newcomer.

The Comrades in orange didn’t see this coming.

Or did they?

Uncomfortable Numbers for the Safe Seat

PNP Candidate Damion Crawford on Nomination Day. He went on to lose the East Portland By-Elections by 306 votes.

Polls leading up to April 4, 2019, East Portland By-Elections showed numbers the PNP hated to see.

An RJRGLEANER Don Anderson poll released days before the by-elections showed 29 percent of respondents saying they would vote for the JLP if a General Elections were to be called immediately. Comparatively, only 18 percent of those polled would vote PNP. Then there is the hefty 53 percent of potential voters who are still on the fence. For either party to win the East Portland seat convincingly this undecided 53 percent is the group to reach!

History of PNP Victories

So, it is no wonder that the former holders of the safe seat in the East Portland constituency became nervous. A trip down memory lane will immediately reveal why the incumbents would have been edgy at the slightest shift in this safe seat.

The Constituency of Portland Eastern is a predominantly rural area that includes the communities of Fellowship, Manchioneal, Fairy Hill, Prospect, and Port Antonio. Collectively, these communities represent just over 36,000 voters who in the past have predominantly voted for the PNP.

Interestingly, the East Portland constituency has participated in all the parliamentary general elections contested since Jamaica’s independence in 1962. The PNP won that seat ten times while the JLP had only two victories there.

  • PNP’s victories: 1967, 1972, 1976, 1989, 1993, 1997, 2002, 2007, 2011, 2016.

  • JLP victories:  1962 and 1980.

Consequently, the safe seat of Eastern Portland remained in the same political hands for more than 30 years.

Then came the Vaz team.

Following the brutal murder of the sitting Member of Parliament Dr. Lynvale Bloomfield, on February 2, 2019, the by-election spotlight fell on the quiet constituency. The JLP chose Ann Marie Vaz, the wife of Daryl Vaz who incidentally, is the sitting Member of Parliament for Western Portland. Mr. Vaz already enjoys the reputation as “Mr. Portland”, so it was relatively simple for the JLP to solidify its hold on the parish with this husband and wife team.

Caught almost flatfooted, the PNP deployed Damion Crawford to the constituency rather than put Andrea Moore, its on the ground standard-bearer to face Mrs. Vaz. To his credit, Damion Crawford, a relative newcomer parachuted to that constituency put up a credible fight to lose by the narrow 306 vote margin.

How did the PNP lose the safe seat?

Apparently, the PNP’s loss of its safe seat may be attributed to the stronger campaign put up by the well-funded Vaz camp. Using her visibility in the parish to her advantage, Ann-Marie Vaz (and her husband Daryl) blazed a trail, galvanising supporters, fixing roads, even doing laundry (with some help of course). During the high-intensity campaign Mrs. Vaz, or “Action Ann” impressed the traditionally safe PNP seat.

On the flip side, the PNP’s campaign with its candidate Damion Crawford failed to resonate with the Portland masses.  Apparently, the party could not find a message to effectively counteract the prosperity promises advanced by the Vaz team. It didn’t help when the PNP candidate promised more goats to a constituency that has not emerged fully from suppressed economic conditions faced by the farming poor.

The Final Results – a Wake-Up Call to the PNP

The final result rather than being a humiliating defeat it could have been (the PNP loss was marginal under the circumstances), it was a sobering wake-up call.

After the East Portland By-Election, the PNP must review its position with the electorate. It is no longer enough to bank on winning a “safe seat” without effort. When safe seats become unsafe, it is not business as usual. Rather, the electorate is sending a strong signal that parties which fail to take care of the people’s needs will lose the safe seat to the party who can.



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