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Editorial | No great winner from municipal vote

Published:Wednesday | November 30, 2016 | 11:00 AM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) are understandably pleased and are making much that they won the majority of the municipal councils in Monday's local government elections. But they have no real cause for self-satisfaction, which we are sure Mr Holness well understands.

Indeed, the PM and other leaders, on all sides of the political spectrum, on reflection, will conclude that there was no big winner in these elections. Rather, for people deeply invested in the idea of local government, the primary loser was that ideal, as Jamaicans continue to demonstrate their disconnection from, and disaffection with, this aspect of the country's governance.

Based on the results as they now stand, the JLP will have control of eight of the 13 parish municipalities, against the zero they won when Jamaicans last voted, in 2012, in local government elections. The People's National Party (PNP) will control four, plus the municipal region of Portmore in the parish of St Catherine. The remaining parish municipality of St Thomas was tied, with both parties having five seats each. If it remains that way, the mayor's job, with its casting vote, will likely go to the party that won the popular vote.

That the JLP won is not surprising. After all, having gained a net 11 seats in the parliamentary elections nine months ago, it very narrowly won the national government. It is usually the case that the party that wins the general election also wins the municipal ones, if held reasonably soon afterwards. Moreover, the Government, except for its faux pas with the election-eve jobs programme, has, so far, performed creditably. Indeed, in that context, if the JLP had lost, Mr Holness and his party would have been likely ridiculed by their critics and political opponents.

But here is the rub, and why the JLP, even as it enjoys its victory, has no cause for wild celebrations. First, a mere 29.7 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote, four points lower than in 2012 and more than 23 percentage points fewer than the turnout for last February's election. It was the lowest voter turnout in recent decades, continuing the trend of apathy Jamaicans have demonstrated towards elections generally, and municipal ones in particular.

Looked at another way, the voter turnout was close to, if not deep into the bone, of the base support of the two parties, and in this case, as it usually is, the one in Government was able to bring more flesh to the ballot box than the other with little patronage to offer.

In that sense, Mr Holness is wrong that the election was a referendum on the Government and the outcome a declaration of people's satisfaction. Jamaicans may, indeed, be satisfied with Mr Holness' government, but only his base made any such statement on Monday.

Nor are these results an indication to the PNP, as its outgoing general secretary Paul Burke believes, that "we have serious work to do on the ground". If there is a message to the PNP and the JLP it is of a continued retreat by citizens from politics, and at a faster rate, from local government.

That, fundamentally, is the issue that the parties have to address robustly and sooner, rather than later, if political parties are to retain their relevance.