Editorial: Internal party conflicts and personality disorders

Logos of Jamaica's major political parties
Logos of Jamaica's major political parties (Photo credit: File photo)

The recent resignation of the People’s National Party (PNP) vice presidents Mikael Phillips, Wykeham McNeil and Damion Crawford and the PNP chairman, Phillip Paulwell, highlights not just the power rifts in the PNP, but the inability of some Jamaicans to effectively manage important conflictual relationships and resolve these bitter disputes. The lack of conflict management skills in the PNP came to the fore after Portia Simpson-Miller won the party leadership contest in 2006 much to the chagrin of the Brown class in the party. The power rift widened when Phillips challenged Simpson-Miller in 2008 and lost. However, he and his supporters refused to accept and support the winner whom they labelled the “ghetto gal!” The rift in the party continued when Peter Bunting challenged Phillips as party leader within two years of the 2020 General Election.

The PNP’s crushing electoral defeat at the hands of the JLP in the general election  led to the resignation of Phillips as party leader. This resignation laid bare the festering wounds in the party as those who wanted to lead the PNP were unexpectedly trounced by the Jewish MP Mark Golding who, initially, had no leadership ambition. The resignation of the vice presidents and the party chairman en bloc is a revolt against Golding’s leadership!

The JLP also went through protracted internal party conflicts. There was the revolt against Edward Seaga by the Gang of Five, and subsequently the Highway Eleven in 1995, as well as the anger at Andrew Holness becoming party leader through selection rather than election in 2011, and Audley Shaw’s challenge to Holness for the party leadership in 2013.

Internal party squabbles are cyclical and tends to occur when parties are in opposition and senior leaders are fearful that they will not regain political power for a long time because the party leader is unpopular.  Hence, leadership ambition comes to the fore. The problem is that the political ambition of the second-tier party leaders drives their ideals instead of their ideals driving their political ambition. Internal party challenges and squabbles are not unique to the PNP and the JLP; they occur in political parties all over the world.

However, there are two noticeable differences in Jamaica. The first problem is the protracted nature of the internal party struggles in Jamaica. The JLP’s internal rifts lasted from 1990 to 2013 (23 years) and the PNP’s rift started in 2006 and is still ongoing after 13 years. The second problem is that these bitter and acrimonious struggles are backed by high drama and political bloodletting compared to internal party struggles in other English-speaking Caribbean countries. These two problems not only connect the PNP and the JLP, but also Jamaicans in general, many of whom engage in similar protracted and acrimonious struggles in their varying relationships. These struggles among citizens are evident in the high rate of domestic violence, especially intimate-partner violence, stabbings, shooting and homicides.

Conflict management and personality disorders

The work of the late professor of psychiatry, Fred Hickling, sheds some light on this problem. He argued that many conflicts in Jamaica are caused by personality disorders rooted in attachment disorders starting in childhood. A personality disorder is a person’s pattern of behaviour and inner logic across her or his life course that is different from the expected norm. Such behaviour is evident in relationships.

Personality disorders range from mild, moderate to severe. Jamaicans in their relationship with others sometimes say, “he or she is off,” when some people behave “strange, weird or funny.” This intuition, more often than not, points to mild personality disorder. Protracted problems in intimate-partner and social relationships point to moderate personality disorder. Severe personality disorder is evident in those who kill people with whom they have a relationship because of a disagreement and they feel disrespected. Hickling and his team, in several articles in a special issue of the West Indian Medical Journal published in 2013, reported among other things that just over 40 per cent of Jamaicans (including politicians) suffer from personality disorders. The research team highlighted three major symptoms of the Jamaica Personality Disorder Inventory. These are abnormal power management relations (problems with authority), psychological and physiological dependency (distress with unmet emotional needs by individuals and/or organizations) and psychosexual dysfunction (dysfunctional behaviour with one’s partner).

Some Jamaican politicians, in both the PNP and the JLP, are unable to manage conflicts and power. They, like many other Jamaicans, have a problem with authority and so engage in protracted conflicts because their political ambition drives their values and ideals. These politicians elevate themselves over the country and the political party because of their unmet needs within the party organization. How can politicians engage in long-term conflicts in a political party they are committed to using to “serve” and “build” the country? Long-term conflicts undermine the electoral viability of the party and the opportunity to “serve” and “build” the country! It is evidence of pathological behaviour.

The patterns of behaviour that some of these politicians exhibit with their partners remain outside of the public’s eye, but many are waiting for the night to turn to day. What the work of Hickling and his team has shown is that some Jamaican politicians suffer from personality disorders. Their patterns of behaviour and publicly expressed inner needs are rationalized in the national interest and fuel internal party conflicts that exist way outside of the civil norms and expected behaviour in Westminster politics.

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