Gordon Robinson: Elections not enough
Confusion seems rife regarding the benefits of a fixed election date.
Fears have been expressed that fixing the election date would put the country on pause for 12 months every fourth or fifth year. This real concern, albeit born of a natural reluctance to change, is one that must be addressed if the support required to force the change is to materialise.
The concern seems to be that fixed elections will focus all eyes on that date from a year out. Governments will begin to spend recklessly and businesses and citizens will be unable to concentrate on going forward until the dreaded day has passed.
These are avoidable overreactions, especially by realising two truths. First, these overreactions already obtain under current constitutional arrangements which provide for elections before December 2016. In July 2015 (17 months before an election is constitutionally 'due'), Peter Phillips put Jamaica on election watch. Since then, businesses have been holding their breaths; people guessing and spelling; PM playing 'touchy-feely' games; political rallies are held weekly islandwide; tribalism is heightened; and the entire nation is dancing to a rhythm sounding like one of Jamaica's worst festival songs, Stop and Go, by the late, lamented Robbie Forbes (or is it 'Michael' Forbes?).
Second, it's the uncertainty that causes all this agitation. Nobody knows if the prime minister will 'call it' in December, January, February or, my preferred dates, late August/September. This ridiculous state of permanent 'alert' can be averted by fixing the election date so that all and sundry can time their anxiety to begin no more than three months before.
The above should calm the disquiet expressed by thoughtful citizens. But fixed election date benefits go far beyond the assuaging of these anxieties. Currently, elections are called at the whim of one individual. In the past, this has caused significant damage to democracy and helped us towards our present state of practical totalitarianism.
Michael Manley announced, in February 1980, that the general election would be called that year but diddled, dawdled and delayed until October 30, by which time tribal war had accounted for 844 casualties. Fiddling with the date mattered not, as the JLP won by a landslide.
By 1982, every political poll showed the PNP had regained the majority but, relying on a temporary upsurge in popularity after the Grenada invasion (facilitated propaganda that Jamaica saved the Caribbean from communism), Seaga breached an agreement not to call an election on an old voters' list and announced a snap election in 1983, which the PNP boycotted. The only national result was another undermining of democracy, which could have been worse if Seaga, the supreme patriot, hadn't appointed eight 'independent' senators.
It gets worse. The JLP called the 2011 election for four days after Christmas. The PNP appeared ready to call another December election before Portia's recent volte-face. Pundits are now guessing January or February. I'm sure this'll suit somebody's tribal needs (JLP wants power NOW, no matter the national cost; PNP wants winnable date), but I believe no December to February election date suits Jamaica because:
- The winner (especially if not the incumbent) has no time to prepare a proper Budget by March;
- Electors will be voting under the certainty of a 'holding' Budget based on incumbent plans, no matter who wins, without any hope of seeing new campaign commitments incorporated therein.
Jamaican elections should be held between late August and mid-October for the following reasons:
- Fiscal performance based on the fiscal year's Budget can be assessed after five to seven months;
- The winner will have time to include its manifesto commitments in next year's Budget.
- Disruptions of the school year will be kept to a minimum (latest date should be six weeks after the start of the new year).
- Independence celebrations will be over.
- Christmas won't be disturbed.
But fixed election dates alone aren't panaceas. We need real democracy, not just an election. We need Jamaican governments to be held accountable to Jamaican citizens, not just to be elected by citizens. We need comprehensive constitutional overhaul to include:
- Replacing the monarchy with a republic.
- Abolishing the governor general.
- Establishing an executive, directly elected president.
- Mandating the president to nominate an executive (Cabinet) of maximum 12 members from an islandwide talent pool of managers, regardless of political affiliation, and subject only to vetting and approval from MPs.
- Allowing for a direct vote for 14 or 15 senators (one from each parish) or for the Senate to be elected by proportional representation.
Peace and love.
- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.