Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Fixed election date fraught with danger

Published:Monday | February 15, 2016 | 2:00 AM

For some time, I have been inching towards a view that a fixed election date would add some value to our electoral system. On January 31, I was mere metres away from jumping on the bandwagon when there appeared Half-Way Tree on my TV screen.

The unprecedented clamour for a fixed election date has been no doubt fuelled by the prime minister's 2015 decision not to go full speed ahead with the calling of the date, but first to give the new electors a chance to exercise their franchise, and second, to give her Master a chance to touch her.

It was not a problem that she had been signalling that the general election would be called over one year early; it was not a problem that she had chosen to ignore the local government elections due since March 2015; and it certainly was not a problem that she would have been missing a glorious opportunity to twin both elections and save the overburdened taxpayers of this country billions of dollars in election costs.

The problem was that she had obviously changed her mind about the date of the promised election and had, thereby, sent the country into a tailspin. Never before had any prime minister (PM) made such a dramatic U-turn five months into an election campaign. And nobody could do anything about it - not the rich and powerful, not the Opposition, not the man in the street. "Too much power in the hands of one person," argued the emerging band of fixed-date protagonists.

But the PM's power to do this, though arising from the Constitution, is not limitless, for she is equally constrained by said Constitution to call an election within five years and three months of the last one. It is a power, therefore, that, notwithstanding its openness to intrigue and manipulation, can really only be sparingly used (once in every five years or so). In that respect, it is much less far-reaching than the power to make some of the other decisions a PM is called upon to make from time to time, not the least of which is holding a Cabinet to account.

A fixed election date may be working well for many countries, but if our history is anything to go by, it should not be expected to yield similar results for Jamaica any time soon. In the USA, with a population of well over 300 million, an intense election campaign has been ongoing since mid-2015 and will continue until November 8, 2016 - the date fixed for the next presidential election. To date, I have not heard nor seen a single report of any consequential loss of life, though that country is not without its own brand of bloody mayhem.

 

POLITICAL VIOLENCE

 

In Jamaica, on the other hand, with a population of less than three million, more than 800 citizens were sacrificed in 1980, most of them on the altar of politics. It was facilitated by the extended campaign period that resulted from then PM Michael Manley's February 1980 decision to announce an open-ended election date, making it conditional on the readiness of a voters' list. The intervening period to October that year gave the political goons enough time to plan and execute their despicable acts. And just when we thought that this dark period of our history was mostly behind us, we find ourselves already confronting five campaign-associated murders - four within the last week.

Long campaign periods have not served us well in this country. A fixed election date would merely secure a head start for the criminally inclined, who could henceforth decide with their guns when an election campaign should effectively begin in earnest. This could be a recipe for a disaster.

Furthermore, in the event of a fixed election date, with what would we replace the lost and highly anticipated opportunities for the revelry, reunions, comic relief and general excitement provided by these mega rallies?

Fixing our election date may cut a prime minister down a size or two, but it will do little else for the rest of us. There are many things in the governance structure of this country which could do with some urgent fixing, but the election date is absolutely not one of them. Long live our floating election date.

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