Tue | Jan 23, 2018

Third parties third-rate

Published:Monday | February 8, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Olive Nelson

The die is cast, the curry is being distributed, and the short-lived celebration is over for a host of goats that had been granted the 2015 stay of execution. At the behest of our newly touched prime minister, some of us will be heading to the polls on the 25th instant. Regrettably, an equal number of the electorate may be planning to do anything but that.

The most consistently voiced refrain of the latter group is: "There is no need to vote, no need to choose between the two parties, for they are both the same and both up to no good." But that is only half of the story. We have allowed it to become the full story because of our persistent refusal to recognise third parties.

Third parties are anathema to the Jamaican electorate. Of the more than 40 formed since Independence, none has yet been able to win a parliamentary seat. It is, in fact, much easier to win a seat as an independent candidate (exceptional though that has been) than as a representative of a third party.

The problem is partly cultural. Force-fed on a belief that a two-party system is the highest form of democracy, we have willingly embraced the notion that support for a third would encourage political instability and weaken our democracy. This has not proven to be the case among the mature democracies of the world.

In the United Kingdom, on which our political arrangements are patterned, for example, the Liberal Democrats and, more recently, the Scottish Liberal Party, have been maintaining a respectable presence in the UK Parliament alongside the two major parties - the Conservatives and Labour. While not advocating that we begin to promote multiple parties all around in our small island, there is no question that one or two others would offer more choice and deepen our democracy. The quality of the democratic process is not defined so much by the number of contending parties but more so by the process by which they rise to power.

The other part of the problem is really to be found in the parties themselves. They mostly seem to be formed on a whim, in response to a perceived need to urgently address voter apathy and fix 'the system', but with no solid financial base or backing. Some of them quickly succumb to the enormity of the uphill task and quietly settle into oblivion without creating any stir. Others come blazing from neon-lit launching pads only to disappear into thin air soon after. And yet others will hang on for dear life, appearing every four years or so to remind us of their hapless existence.

Such is the fate of the National Democratic Movement (NDM). Launched in 1995 with much promise and even more promises, its president, Michael Williams, in a letter published in The Gleaner of December 30, 2015, declared that the NDM "had just become the best thing for Jamaica now and in the future". The NDM apparently had no plans to field any candidate in the next election but, under its new (undisclosed) leadership, had great plans to fix everything under the sun on a grand scale and on a drastically reduced tax base.

The party had not started any campaigning for "we only make commitments after we are positive that our plans are sound and workable in Jamaica. Over 20 years old and still in the planning stage!

So while I have much respect for the position outlined by Alexander Scott in his letter of February 3, 2016, titled 'Let's vote for third parties', I have to ask: But where are they?

For the moment, at least, it is clear that the shock-and-awe factor can only be elicited by a recourse to independent candidates. Let the uncommitted and the unimpressed go out and make a statement by voting for the independents on February 25. There may be no third parties, but there are choices. With a few independents in Gordon House, it would no longer be so easy to continue taking the electorate for granted and for idiots.

Besides, we owe it to our ancestors who, in the struggle for change, the struggle for a voice, the struggle for some semblance of justice in their miserable existence, had to burn property, sacrifice themselves and watch their loved ones being martyred by an oppressive planter class. It is a betrayal that their privileged descendants should now choose to become mere spectators, blissfully watching from their comfort zones the decay of a rich democratic legacy, seemingly in the hope that by some miracle, someone else will, in due course, satisfy their craving for the elusive utopia.

The uncommitted, uninterested, disenchanted voters must change their ways and try to use the existing electoral process to effect the change they desire.

- Olive Nelson is a chartered accountant. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and olivescottn@gmail.com.