Mon | Dec 18, 2017

Editorial | Keep SE St Mary peaceful

Published:Thursday | October 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM

It is not our sense that anything has, up to now, taken place in South East St Mary that should jeopardise the holding of the parliamentary by-election there in four days' time. The political parties and their supporters should not only keep it that way, but improve on the likelihood that voting will be peaceful.

We raise this matter out of concern for recent tensions in the constituency, exacerbated in some instances, this newspaper believes, by hyperbolic, if not contrived, complaints by party activists about the actions of their opponents and/or exaggerated peeve over petty events. Which, of course, is not to claim that there are not real matters of worry.

That this election has frayed nerves and strained emotions is understandable. The governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP) and their leaders are heavily invested in its outcome. Victory for the former will give Prime Minister Andrew Holness a bit of insulation in a Parliament where he, before the vacancies that triggered three imminent by-elections, enjoyed a one-seat majority. For the PNP's new leader, Peter Phillips - who has cast the vote as a referendum on the Government - maintaining the seat in his party column will be parlayed as momentum for a general election that is still more than three years away.

Heightening these tensions is the competitiveness of the seat. It was won in the February 2016 general election by a mere five votes by the PNP's Winston Green. The loser then, the JLP's Norman Dunn, is hoping to flip the outcome. Added to all this is the controversy over the PNP's standard-bearer, Shane Alexis, who doesn't hold Jamaican citizenship.

The upshot is that campaigning in South East St Mary has been akin to what happens on the national stage. The bigwigs of both sides have spent considerable time in the constituency. Mostly, this has translated into people exercising their right to legitimate political activity. But it appears that in a few cases, some party supporters grew overly excited, engaging in undemocratic behaviour.

 

ENVIRONMENT OF FRICTION

 

The situation was not helped by the loud, tit-for-tat complaints over the defacement of campaign posters and the elevation of each act of petty vandalism as organised and major schemes of destruction. This has created an environment of friction - though not of extremities Jamaica has previously known - resulting in the reported cases of stone throwing, political beatings, and, possibly one case of shooting, although this incident has not been confirmed as being politically motivated.

Despite these blots, the campaigning, though hard, has been generally decent. It is certainly a far cry from what it used to be up to three decades ago when political hustings were beset by violence and it was expected that lives would be lost when Jamaicans went to vote. The old ways began to change with the institution, in the 1980s, of an independent body for the supervision of elections, the introduction of new systems to reduce voter fraud, and upgraded election laws, including giving power to the electoral authorities to void a tainted election. Those days must not return.

Jamaica must build the gains as it attempts to perfect its democracy. We don't expect that the JLP and the PNP can account for the actions of every supporter, but the parties can set the tone for their good conduct and eschew the misbehaviour of those who fail to adhere. At the same time, the electoral authorities must be prepared to act in accordance with the law in ensuring that there is no advantage to bad behaviour.