Opinion: Montserrat election results should force some candidates to do serious soul-searching

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Photo credit: ZJB
The Montserrat National Congress with Gregory Willock, left, Dr. Lowell Lewis and Chedmond Browne had a rough debut.

“Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive. What they conceal is vital.” ―Aaron Levenstein

There are many variables that determine the outcome of an election. Competence, experience and likability are common ones. And in a small society such as Montserrat, attributes become magnified.

When a voter enters the solitude of the booth, it becomes their safe space, their grotto in which they can privately wield their limited power. Their choices are often laced with emotion, including revenge, because most people vote with their hearts and not their minds.

On Monday, November 18, 2019, Montserrat held its general election. Thirty-five candidates waged battle for nine seats. The final results yielded some predictable winners, but they also gleaned some truths that should cause some of the failing candidates to do serious self-reflection.

Firstly, all politicians are flawed. The political arena is one in which there is never a universally liked candidate. Politicians can only hope to earn majority support, and there are critical factors involved.

Case in point: A candidate who never held political office clobbered his opponents Monday. Crenston Buffonge utilized his likability factor, boosted by a strong party apparatus, to earn a plurality of the votes. It sends a resounding message when not even the venerable Easton Taylor-Farrell, the new Premier of Montserrat, could garner as many votes as Buffonge.

People are ultimately judged by what they do consistently. Montserratians saw Buffonge as a hard-working, decent man who treated people with respect. So in many cases they took a chance on him rather than some more experienced candidates, some of whom had character issues.

Photo credit: MCAP
Veronica Dorsette-Hector earned the fifth-most votes in her first time running for political office.

Three candidates who rode success just five years ago struggled this time. Although party affiliation, or lack thereof, can determine one’s fate, personal choices cannot be discounted.

Delmaude Ryan, the erstwhile Deputy Premier who oversaw the giant Ministry of Education and Health during the PDM administration, garnered only the 16th-most votes Monday after getting the sixth-most votes in 2014.

The public is capable of forgiving a candidate’s failures. But not when those failures are compounded by head-scratching comments and perceived arrogance.

On November 4, fourteen days before the election and a time when she should be endearing herself to the public through humility, Ryan committed an unforced error. During a debate she forcefully defended Britain’s right to hire consultancy Mott MacDonald to conduct an assessment of the island. The report, in part, questioned the education standards of Montserratians. “Montserrat is owned by the British government!” Ryan said. Her remark was met with groans from the audience and criticized by fellow candidates.

After the debate, Mrs. Ryan attended a PDM rally during which she gave a fiery speech lashing out at her detractors from earlier in the evening. Her rhetoric fired up her base but alienated some non-party-affiliated voters.

Another candidate who appears to have misread the electorate is former Parliamentary Secretary Gregory “Saga” Willock. After earning the ninth and final seat in the 2014 elections under the PDM banner, he probably felt his name recognition, folksy appeal and new Montserrat National Congress party would be enough to re-elect him. He finished 20th.

“I could have campaigned harder. The people voted party. I’m hopeful that MCAP will do a good job.”

Dr. Ingrid Buffonge

And then there’s the good doctor, Ingrid Buffonge, who has ridden a political roller-coaster the past five years. She coasted to a seat in 2014 as PDM dominated with seven of the nine seats. But she left the party a year later and joined the opposition after being disappointed with her role.

She decided to run as an independent this time, hoping a coalition government would be elected, giving her a chance to run the health ministry. But like most of the other independent candidates, she got swept away by a party wave.

“I could have campaigned harder,” admitted Buffonge, who fell 12 votes short of a seat. “The people voted party. I’m hopeful that MCAP will do a good job. I’m disappointed that I won’t affect the bigger health-care picture but I hope MCAP will be receptive to [my ideas].”

If there’s one painful lesson from this election it’s this: Politicians should never assume. Each election cycle is different, there is always a natural yearning for change, and personality flaws can come back to haunt, especially when they are not mitigated by tangible accomplishments.

That said, here is my analysis of all 35 candidates (in order of finish):

Photo credit: MCAP
Veteran politician Charles T. Kirnon takes over the crucial Ministry of Education, Health, Community Services, Sports, Youth and Ecclesiastic Affairs.

1. Crenston Buffonge (MCAP, 1,378 votes): Most insiders predicted he would earn a seat, but his dominance stunned many, including Buffonge himself. A strong likability factor, buoyed by the MCAP juggernaut, carried him to the top spot. Here’s hoping Buffonge can change politics, and not vice-versa.

2. Paul Lewis (PDM, 1,251): Lewis’ popularity remained intact despite questionable tactics during the campaign and the party’s unceremonious deposing of former Premier Donaldson Romeo. Once groomed to be Premier, Lewis is now a member of the opposition . . . with Romeo.

3. Easton Taylor-Farrell (MCAP, 1,210): Family man, religious man, experienced man. The MCAP leader ticked all the boxes and was virtually guaranteed a seat. After decades in politics he has reached the helm.

4. Donaldson Romeo (IND, 1,060): He’s coming off a rocky tenure as Premier. Two party members crossed the floor, he fired another, and he was later removed as PDM leader. Yet he still enjoys a loyal base.

5. Veronica Dorsette-Hector (MCAP, 1,007): The first-time candidate surprised many with her top-five finish. An attorney and former magistrate, her acumen is certain. But her canvassing behind the scenes also paid dividends.

6. Dr. Samuel Joseph (MCAP, 998): After dominating in the 2017 By-Election, Joseph proved his political gravitas with another strong showing. He has been appointed Deputy Premier and assigned the Ministry of Communications, Works, Energy and Labour ― quite a meteoric rise for the Harris Village native and physics phenom.

7. Charles Kirnon (MCAP, 970): Kirnon, who is revered in the community, is back in Parliament after barely missing out in 2014. He assumes the crucial Ministry of Education, Health, Community Services, Sports, Youth and Ecclesiastic Affairs.

8. David Osborne (PDM, 947): “Mundo” showed that the Osborne name still garners respect. And his benevolence in the community earned him extra favorability. However, many constituents have expressed concern about his tenuous health amid the stress of governing.

9. Claude Hogan (PDM, 873): “Bambi” was fired from the Ministry of Agriculture, Trade, Lands, Housing and Environment in 2017 but his popularity held firmly enough for him to claim the ninth and final seat.

10. Dwayne Hixon (PDM, 862): So close, yet so far. Hixon, who joined PDM earlier this year, had a strong first-time showing and missed out by only 11 votes.

11. Dr. Ingrid Buffonge (IND, 861): She has been on a personal crusade to reform the health-care system, but after earning the second-most votes in 2014 with PDM she fell to a disappointing 11th as an independent candidate.

12. Jenzil Skerritt (MCAP, 854): Another first-time candidate, the young Skerritt fell short but has a bright political future. He expressed himself well during debates and will continue to hone his political skills.

13. Charlesworth Phillip (MCAP, 822): “Sonny” continued to show a passion for community service. As a veteran on the political scene he can still play a vital role for his party despite not having a seat.

14. Roselyn Cassell-Sealy (MCAP, 722): Sealy, as a former government minister, will be a vital sounding board for the MCAP government.

15. Emile Duberry (PDM, 698): In a strange way Emile and fellow PDM member David “Trixie” Duberry seem like the same candidate because of the surname and similar demeanor.

16. Delmaude Ryan (PDM, 687): Very disappointing ending for the former Deputy Premier. Yes, voter turnout was low, but she earned just about half the votes she got in 2014.

17. David Duberry (PDM, 651): See comments for Emile Duberry above.

18. Norman Cassell (MCAP, 550): The bright side for Cassell: He’s a member of the winning party.

19. Peter Queeley (MULP, 482): The financial specialist and numbers cruncher failed to pull in the figures that really counted: Votes! By the way, they should seriously consider changing the name or acronym of the party. “MULP” does not conjure great images.

20. Gregory Willock (MNC, 405): “Saga” re-branded himself with a new party; re-branding one’s reputation is a much tougher task.

21. Dr. Lowell Lewis (MNC, 327): The former Chief Minister seemed to run a passive, lackluster campaign and simply hope for the best.

22. Victor James Sr. (IND, 308): Another veteran politician who failed to make serious inroads with the populace amid a party-dominated field.

23. Shirley Osborne (IND, 253): She’s smart, she’s patriotic, she’s experienced, she articulated great ideas and she has the Osborne name and pedigree. Her lackluster support at the polls can only point to one element: Personal unfavorability with the public.

24: Jermaine Wade (MULP, 244): The former MCAP Parliamentarian hitched himself to the MULP wagon and the wheels fell off.

25. Veta Wade (IND, 233): She canvassed tirelessly. But as an independent and first-time candidate she faced an uphill battle. Her focus on the environment possibly pigeon-holed her as a one-issue candidate.

26. Franklyn Greaves (MULP, 204): “Algie” was a forceful speaker and advocate for Montserrat’s future but failed to gain serious traction.

27. Bertram Lee (MULP, 204): Another candidate who expressed interesting ideas. His delivery could use some polish.

28. Alvin “Jim” Gerald (IND, 196): He articulated interesting alternative ideas that were logical. Would make a great advisor if MCAP is willing to listen.

29. Eulyn Silcott-Greaves (IND, 142): Not only did she enter late, but many questioned her motives.

30. Karen Allen (IND, 120): “Lioness” represented herself well during the first debate and is a forceful and articulate advocate. Her lobbying for legalizing marijuana likely scared off many on still-deeply-conservative Montserrat.

31. Dunstan Lindesay (IND, 98): “The Conscience” has a huge following on social media but his ideas, although well intended, have a radical tinge that can alienate some voters.

32: Chedmond Browne (MNC, 96): The veteran still has the fire but MNC didn’t have the political fuel.

33. Keithroy Morson (MULP, 93): “De Bear” is clearly passionate about promoting Montserrat culture and he has a big following as a calypso icon, but his aggressive, quasi-bullying style turns many voters off.

34: Glenn Francis (IND, 92): The veteran educator showed zeal but perhaps entered the competition too late to make serious inroads.

35. Wilford Meade (IND, 51): “Moose” also entered late and was never considered a serious contender.

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