An opportunity for real progress
It was clear during the recent election that the People's National Party (PNP) was awash with money, while the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) had to carefully steward the few resources it had. Feeding, clothing, transporting and providing 'pocket money' for the massive crowds in their tens of thousands to attend the many public street meetings and nomination day parades was not cheap. The total bill must have more than exceeded 10 figures.
Where did this huge sum come from? Putting the best face on it, the private sector coughed up the dough in massive political campaign contributions, hundreds of 'business investments' in expectation of future benefits. The relatively few who donated to the JLP must be smiling to themselves in quiet anticipation, while the many who bankrolled the PNP must be mulling over their tens of millions gone down the drain.
Surely, we have all learnt some important lessons from all of this.
It seems to me that the first object lesson is that there is a critical mass of Jamaican voters who will not be bought. Very many will abstain rather than swallow their spit and vote; and some may take the pocket money out of need - and may even take from both sides; but the majority of Jamaicans will find a way to express their own wills and intentions despite the crass efforts to buy their votes.
To believe otherwise is to hold the ordinary Jamaican voter in the greatest contempt, to believe that most of us are too simple-minded and 'wanty-wanty' to be able to weigh issues for ourselves, and come to a logical conclusion.
Over the last many decades, Jamaica's political class of all stripes has been guilty of disrespecting the majority of us, believing that a ripping dance party and a plate of curry goat is enough to buy our 'X'.
And many working-class Jamaicans, who habitually use the old Anancy trick of playing fool to catch wise, have been doing their best to get as much as they can from the system.
X FOR SALE
I suppose that there are still large numbers whose X is for sale, but this election has shown that there is a critical mass - a growing number of Jamaicans - who have sufficient self-respect not to prostitute themselves to politics.
The second lesson is that general elections in Jamaica do not have to cost billions of dollars to stage. The current practice is a serious threat to our democracy, suppressing the emergence of new political movements which could be good for Jamaica, but lack financial power. The fact that big money did not win the election augurs well for the future.
If this is not a wake-up call for the political parties, at least the Jamaican private sector - which must always be sensitive to their bottom line - should now be at a point where it says, 'Enough is enough'. Jamaica's struggling productive sector cannot bear this level of huge financial drain every four or five years, when the money could have been spent to increase their competitive advantage.
This is now the time for serious and thorough campaign finance reform.
First of all, because the incoming Jamaica Labour Party Government did not receive the lion's share of campaign donations, it is not as beholden to special interests to hand out political favours.
This is now the appropriate time to revisit campaign-finance legislation to require that all political donations made throughout the year be made public. Yes, it will mean that the quantum of political donations will decrease, but this will be a good thing! There was too much money floating around, anyway. And the honesty and transparency will be good for the country, and will relieve the stress on the accountants and auditors to conceal political donations from shareholders.
The 2016 JLP manifesto contains plans to require high public officials to publicly declare their income and assets. This is a recognition that persons in public life must be held to a higher standard of accountability in their personal affairs, which means that they must forgo some of their privacy for the common good. The same must be true for political organisations that seek to manage public affairs and public funds, and private entities that interface intimately with the public sector.
Should these opportunities be grasped, Jamaica could be stepping up to political and economic progress and prosperity.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to email@example.com.