Wed | Oct 18, 2017

Dennis Jones: Jamaica's election 2016 - Rushing headlong to go nowhere fast

Published:Saturday | March 5, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Dr Peter Phillips and the PNP miscalculated by pounding Andrew Holness day in, day out on his Beverly Hills mansion.

Why the Government decided to call for a general election when it did will be one of those items for intense study for years to come. Some or all of the story will have to wait for the inside scoop from those on the inside, and they may be in no hurry to expose their role in what is now seen as a failed strategy.

As most know, when you don't have fixed-term elections and decide to go to the polls well ahead of your allotted time it's because: (1) you've reached an untenable situation and hope a new (larger) mandate can help remove that; or (2) you feel that things look good now and won't get better, so strike while the iron is hot; or (3) you've lost your mind because things look terrible for you, but you just haven't realised that, and your move is really a form of panic.

This decision seems even more strange in the context of Jamaica and the current IMF programme. The Government had constitutionally up to mid-March 2017 before it needed to go to the polls. Coincidentally, the final test date for the IMF programme is end of March 2017. Having done so well in passing the programme tests (11 so far), why rush before the programme is over? The programme had gone well in its own terms. The country was not universally thrilled with the outcomes, especially with the lack of many new jobs and the decline in the value of the Jamaican dollar.

 

BROAD SIGNS

But, most of the broad signs were of a much healthier economy, with a solid base set for at least stable, and maybe faster growth. Why would the Government not want to max out its term and take all the credit due? The dislikes for the programme were 'baked in the cake', as they say. Would the dislike worsen much over the next year? Some people foresaw a nasty Budget coming for 2016-17, which means that people understood that the road remained rocky. However, the government had shown great resolve, and by being unbending had won many accolades internationally - admittedly, from bodies and people who have no vote in Jamaica.

When the Government gave the country every sign last autumn that it would call an election before the end of the year, it must have felt confident. Something happened, though, to change that cheery outlook.

I don't buy for one second the idea that we were being saved disruption over Christmas. Whatever happened to sour the mood, things changed almost as quickly once the Christmas cake and sorrel were digested. We heard that the PM was waiting to be "touched" by her "Master".

Easy now! I'm ticklish!

Cynics could easily say that the decision to tell the people that the touch had been felt in late January and that she would "fly the gate" was because of the touch of a pollster. It could be that the Government misread the poll's four per cent margin as wide, forgetting that the three per cent margin of error made the lead wafer-thin. Anyway, off to the races she went. The rest is history.

 

SIMPLE ARITHMETIC

Election arithmetic is simple. If what you do gets you fewer votes than the opposition parties, you have done something wrong. Sometimes, those wrong things are very clear. Many would argue that they were clear as a bell, and only someone whose arrogance was so high that it made white look black could have missed the signs.

I think one of the clear signs was that the electorate has changed. I think many people who don't vote won't vote until the nature of Jamaican politics changes. I think they were joined this time by people who fell into that same boat by the simple act of what we call 'bad-mindedness'. The ruling party never read the memo about leaving the man's house out of it. Having gone down that road, they did not read the other memo suggesting that it was better to focus on what the party had to offer people rather than to keep digging at something that was a clear symbol of many people's basic aspirations - to be better off, and have tangible signs of that.

That was compounded by a series of follow-up questions that made many wonder what was really of interest. It did not seem to be the nation's welfare. They also did not read the memos - and there were many sent along the road - that people wanted more engagement with the nation's leader and were unhappy that the aloofness had gone on for so long.

The issue of not having debates stuck in the craw of many. I've tried to find a logic in dodging the debates, and it's hard to understand. One problem I have is the notion that it was better to dodge the debates because the PNP leader was unlikely to do well against the JLP leader. I think that was also baked into the cake, and all that was likely was a scotching of that notion - which should have translated into a plus (like "She didn't do so badly ...").

The other weakness of the argument is that it puts no value on the strengths of the PNP team versus the JLP's. That could be translated into a damning criticism of the Cabinet and ministers who have tried to steer a tough course for some four years. You really didn't want to see the current finance minister (with four years of IMF success) take on his likely successor (with an IMF record that is the envy of few)? C'mon! This was the chance to pitch what the Government had done against the untested and unbudgeted promises of the wannabes.

There has to be bloodletting soon, and we may get some answers to what was behind the strategy and why it did not turn out to be a winner. I'm not going with the crazy notion that the government wanted to lose. Walk away from the sweet smell of success? What are you smoking?

- Dennis Jones is an economist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and dennisgjones@gmail.com.