Observations on the Jamaican General Election

Dead End Politics: The Sixty-Seven Percent Who Stayed Home And Minority Rule

by Donna Mattis

Democracy is that lofty ideal that is everybody’s battle cry but no one seems to understand its complexities, its dynamics, what it takes to make it work, so when they get it, it becomes the classic case of having it but not knowing what to do with it – certainly not knowing how to make it work to their welfare. The results of the Jamaica elections last week were the most rank example of that dilemma.

For a while now voters have lost their zest for participation in the process as far as elections go. Understandably, because over the years the promise of an Independent Jamaica has not borne the qualitative and quantitative expectations and promises that herald new beginnings.

Gradually, voter participation has declined to such alarming levels that questions of legitimacy and the right to rule – constitutionally authorized by Westminster first past the post (FPTP) formalization – must become an agenda issue if democracy is not only to be preserved but evolve.

Recent Voter Turnout in Jamaican General Elections

The Nature of Democracy

One of democracy’s main objectives is the de-centralization of political power to permit the majority of citizens to exercise influence over their political environment (Class, State and Democracy, Carl Stone, 1985). An imperative because despite changes in the course of history there continue to be tensions between development and the material inequalities of post-World War II societies. The fight for democracy therefore is a political impulse to a reality where distinctions of birth, social rank, education and occupation continue to alienate the masses even as a new course – the politics of the equality of rights-based transformation – was embarked on.

Democracy was the response that would put brakes on and hold in check the tendency towards the inequality of wealth and power in the political and social systems – the beginning of the class struggle. Lacking the material resources to affect the kind of changes that are needed, the election became the power tool in the hands of the citizens. The question though is this: do the people understand the workings of that power and how to use it for transformative change? In other words how to make the process more than an abstraction.

Promises, Failure, Disillusionment and Withdrawal

In much the same way that the people do not understand democracy and their power position within the social and political dynamics, so too do the political leadership not understand the people and the relationship between themselves and the people. If they did maybe we would not be at this present juncture. Or maybe they do and we are the ones thinking they don’t!

The disillusionment with the process was a slow and steady progression of continued promises and continued failure to deliver on election commitments. As times progressed the idea of the voter being a mere means to a political end took hold in the psyche. Particularly, when at the end of every political cycle the absentee “landlords” would suddenly roll into town with fresh promises for the basic rights entitled to their constituents. Withdrawal from the process became a social impulse against political negligence and rightly so; except that withdrawal has to come with an alternative plan on how to reform or revolutionize the system and make it work to the ideals that hold to be self-evident. This is the ongoing challenge and this is where the erection of blockers between those who refuse to participate and the system has been calamitous as witnessed by the September 3 election.

Participatory Democracy vs Representative Democracy: The Role of The People

Democracy in and of itself cannot work unless there is a coalition of sociopolitical interests to make it work. It will live up to its own standards if people take the process way beyond the periodic voting exercise that has overwhelmingly passed for “working” democracies as a feature of Eurocentric political convention.

Its greatest repay is participatory democracy and not the baneful representative imitation that we have allowed it to depart and descend into. Democracy needs people as much as people need democracy. Voter apathy does nothing to protect and evolve that process. What it does is allow for the descent into one-party dictatorship, minority rule and the harmful tyranny of that minority.

What Has Withdrawal Accomplished?

So, a staggering 67.4 % of the voting population decided to turn their backs on the exercise last week and understandably so. But what has it achieved but the granting of unwarranted power in the hands of a virtual dictator? What has it ever achieved except the handing over of the voting process to political tribalists for them to do battle for the spoils?

The Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) as of 2018 showed that 73.6% (2,181,070) Jamaicans are eligible to vote. In the September 3 2020 elections a mere 710,457 bothered to do so with 406,085 voting for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and 304,372 for the People’s National Party (PNP). It means that 1,470,613 eligible voters boycotted the polls – two-thirds of the voting cohort felt it was not worthwhile because “nutin nah change”. Well it certainly won’t if you don’t get up and stand up and lead the change.

The media certainly hasn’t made this much of an issue. Not that it is not talked about. It always is…every four years – between banter and the pouring in of results. But not with the urgency that it demands. As media go it is sensational to splash headlines of ‘Wipeout! Pulverized! Carnage’! on front pages of their dailies. Albeit that there was a whopping 18. 2 % drop to 37% in voter turnout compared to 2016.

Albeit that Andrew Holness whose only recommendation it seems is that he is a post-independence birther has not been able to excite the political recluse back into the process.

Albeit that support for the JLP and Holness despite the green Clark’s and Las Vegas showboating declined by 7%. An important distinction to make as Holness is the latest in a long line of Messianic leaders…in some minds, the living Messiah returned to earth to walk among mortals.

Albeit that although there was a staggering 33% decline among People’s National Party (PNP) voters compared to 2016, Holness’ imaginings of good management and leadership could not attract those supporters – angry for a myriad of reasons.

The JLP victory is pyrrhic when placed in full context, does not improve the process and at the end of it – remains as minority rule. Both parties have a lot to ponder if we are to act to save the fledgling democracy whose only saving grace for those scraping the bottom of the barrel is that regime change or not is still subjected to the ballot rather than more violent means. All this however, seems to be lost in demoralizing the loser and feeding the arrogance of the victor. Poor Jamaica!

What Use The Protest Vote? 

Sixty-seven point five percent (67.5%) of eligible voters stayed home and we romanticize it and they seem to wear it as a badge. What were they protesting?:

  1. Corruption
  2. An out of control crime monster that lack of political will keeps nurturing
  3. Political cronyism and nepotism
  4. A rundown health system where people die on the floors of hospitals or in wheel chairs for lack of treatment while the minister with responsibility lives in his own little PR world
  5. An education system in need of a complete overhaul
  6. An apparent – at least in one political setup – grievance from leadership and elections past

Protest we must but where has it got us since we have been protesting? In the same way we cannot vote and return home and depend on the good nature of politicians to live up to our expectations and the promises they make, so too we cannot just remove ourselves and expect that the changes we demand will come. They certainly haven’t as the gap of disenchantment grows wider. In fact the cleavages have only deepened.

JLP and PNP supporters

It means that we are at a critical stage in our democracy. It means that we need to rethink what democracy means, how to make it work and most critically the role that we have to play in making it work. The key to that is people participation or creating a genuine participatory democracy in lieu of the representative system that has fed so much of the disillusionment. The belief that elections make good democracies. Forget it! They don’t!

It means political action! Action that goes beyond voting to working together to influence and have a hand in the decision making process. Why should 63 members of parliament be the sole decision makers in policies that affect our lives even more than it does theirs? While we have been fed the misconception that democracy in itself means the rule of the people and therefore is participatory, historically the reality contradicts that belief. True democracy means participation!

Community-based Action Within Civil Society

It is clear that withdrawing from the process is not enough —-it would never be. We have to re-focus on building strong non-governmental groups within the disenchanted civil society and non-governmental institutions. It is the only way to have a just society — that genuine separation between civil society and the formal political realm (The Idea of Civil Society, by Adam B. Seligman (Princeton University Press, 1992).

As the representative form of democracy leads to greater and greater voter indifference it is imperative that those who refrain from participating begin participation by forging a people based alliance at the community level to promote greater people involvement to replace representative democracy. Representative democracy that is so overwhelmed by deficiencies brought by the inorganic relationship between the political elite and the ruling class they represent and the people that it has failed to work. It is only at that time that we will have a truly democratic society. The politician is not going to do it. He is very clear on what his role in the sociopolitical dynamic is. It is time for the 67.4% to come to terms with what their function is. Until then the minority rule of September 3, 2020 will quickly morph into dictatorship. By then it may be too late!

Please join the conversation on Caribbean Empowerment’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2583126101949661/ Or, you can comment by emailing us at: caribbeanempowerment@pm.me
[Photo – Jamaica Gleaner]

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