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Portia Simpson Miller stepping down as president of PNP

LEADER: People's National Party President Portia Simpson Miller leaves yesterday's National Executive Council meeting at Cedar Grove Academy in Portmore, St Catherine.

Portia Simpson Miller yesterday told her People's National Party (PNP) that she will step down as its president by the time her current mandate expires next September.

But party insiders say that she could leave as early as March, after a leadership contest that will likely pit long-time aspirant Dr Peter Phillips against Peter Bunting, who earlier this year pulled back from a challenge of Simpson Miller.

"The party president is likely to provide a clearer timetable of her departure at the next meeting of officers, which normally takes place on the second Tuesday of each month," said a source who is generally close to Simpson Miller's thinking on major issues.

"A leadership contest could take place as early as February," said the source. "She is concerned that a drawn-out campaign could split the party apart, and, as she indicated, she doesn't want that to happen."

PUBLIC ADS TO BE BANNED

In fact, Simpson Miller stated during yesterday's announcement of her plan that the party would ban public advertising during the campaign.

However, PNP sources expected her to signal her preference for Phillips, her 66-year-old former rival and finance minister during her administration.

"Even if she doesn't openly endorse Dr Phillips, her support will be clear," said the source. "You can take your cue from what happened at the first NEC (National Executive Council) meeting after the February election loss, when Phillip Paulwell (the former energy minister) declared his support for Dr Phillips, and the party president joined the applause."

Simpson Miller indicated her intention to step away from her decade-long leadership of the PNP during an emotional meeting of the party's NEC, at which, according to attendees, tears flowed, there were long embraces, and the leader was given a rousing ovation.

"Today, I am indicating to the party that I will not offer myself for re-election as president of this noble movement for the next political year in September," Simpson Miller said during the meeting held yesterday at Cedar Grove Academy in Portmore, St Catherine.

After her speech, and having been mobbed on the dais by delegates, a tearful Simpson Miller, who turns 71 on December 12, was escorted from the hall of the academy, leaving departing general secretary Paul Burke to deliver his final report to the meeting.

Robert Pickersgill, the party's long-time chairman and a Simpson Miller supporter, noted the deep emotion of her more than 40 years in the party, starting as a councillor in the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation and "the ups and downs" she has endured.

"It caused the meeting to be stalled for quite some time. Understandably so," Pickersgill said.

Simpson Miller, who succeeded P.J. Patterson as PNP president in February 2006, has been under pressure to step aside to allow the party to renew itself since narrowly losing the Government in last February's general election.

At the time, Peter Bunting, the national security minister in the former administration, flirted with throwing his hat in the ring, only to retreat on the claim that he was allowing Simpson Miller to set her timetable for departure.

Instead, Karl Blythe, a one-time Cabinet minister, challenged Simpson Miller, but was voted for by only a smidgen of delegates in September - a fact to which Simpson Miller referred yesterday, when she declared: "To receive 93 per cent of the votes is indeed an overwhelming endorsement."

However, Simpson Miller suggested that she only stayed on after the general election because of her awareness of Jamaica's history of seeing the party that wins the general election, as the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) did in February, also triumphing in the municipal polls, as was the case a week ago.

It was her fourth loss in six national elections as leader of the party.

"I never wanted a new leader of this movement to commence their term with an election loss, which we expected in the local government elections," she told delegates, according to the text of her speech.

"I wanted to give that person a clean slate on which to build."

Simpson Miller said she wanted the transition to be seamless and stated that guidelines, with sanctions for breaches, including that on advertising, would soon be established by party officers.

"Any action by candidates and their supporters to tarnish other Comrades or bring the party into disrepute will be met with sanctions," she said.

"Those who want leadership must remember that the PNP is bigger than all of us. If we cannot put the party before personal ambitions, we do not deserve to lead this movement."

Simpson Miller, who will be ending four decades in politics, would likely have been guided by the bitter contest of 2006 when she and Phillips were at the front of a crowded field to replace Patterson and two years later, when she was unsuccessfully challenged by Phillips.

Since then, the two have developed, if not camaraderie, a working partnership that resulted, with her as prime minister and Phillips handling the finance portfolio, in macroeconomic stability.

She described that stint in Government, which ended in February, as "a four-year period of some of the most fundamental strides to set the Jamaican economy on the right track".

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