Arnold Bertram | A slide down slippery slope?
In the constituencies of South and South West St Andrew the JLP simply conceded victory to the PNP and moved on to SE St Mary where they defined the nature of the campaign they intended to run by refusing to allow their candidate, Norman Dunn, to debate the PNP's Shane Alexis. In all three constituencies, the JLP has avoided any discussion on the three most pressing issues of national concern - the economy, crime and corruption. Their performance cannot stand up to public scrutiny.
The economy is once again experiencing negative growth, and the murder rate continues to spiral islandwide.
In the parish of St James where security forces have been concentrated for some time, 78 persons have been killed since September of this year. Despite the instances of rampant corruption outlined in the contractor general's reports, Prime Minister Holness has neither spoken nor acted.
The JLP's Strategy
While both parties went all out for victory in SE St Mary, it was the JLP strategy which prevailed. The PNP had no response to the range of vote-buying tactics utilised by the JLP. PNP voters were paid not to show up at the polls. JLP voters were the only employees on the range of publicly funded temporary work programmes, which included road patching, bushing, and the erection of street lights. The buying reached a crescendo in the final hours on election day. The final touch was the intimidating presence of thousands of JLP supporters brought from outside the constituency to line the streets.
The bribery of voters has become ingrained in the political culture for some time and there are not many clean pairs of hands in either party. However, in this by-election, the extensive range of bribery options deployed by the JLP took it to an entirely new level.
This raises the fundamental issue as to whether this kind of election campaign takes us a step forward along the path of democracy and development, or accelerates our slide down a slippery political slope.
The PNP's State of Readiness
In the general election of February 2016, the PNP's Winston Green defeated the JLP's Norman Dunn by a mere five votes. Just eight months later, in the local government elections, the JLP won three of the four divisions in SE St Mary and reversed the deficit of 5 to a majority of 1,214. However, it was not only in SE St Mary that the PNP suffered a calamitous reversal. Islandwide, the party lost nine of the 13 councils and divisions traditionally regarded as PNP strongholds, including Savanna-la-mar, Brown's Town, Moneague and Port Maria, which all went to the JLP.
Clearly, the PNP was in deep crisis. Its organisation islandwide was badly in need of modernisation and the middle classes that had been the backbone of its support had withdrawn. At another level, the absence of an effective political education programme over the past two decades was now taking its toll. The PNP which contested the local government elections was hardly the party that had "built the national movement Ö and liberated the energy and the will and the spirit that has swept us forward and onward".
This was the PNP that Peter Phillips took over after he was elected president in March 2017. To his credit, in the five months in office, he initiated a series of consultations islandwide with stakeholder groups, presided over a highly successful party conference, reorganised the shadow Cabinet, established three national commissions to develop a new policy framework in the critical areas of Landownership, Education and the New Economy. The recruitment of new leadership at the constituency level along with the elevation of Fitz Jackson to the chairmanship of the party and Mark Golding to the post of treasurer were major steps in the renewal of the party's leadership ranks.
Despite the progress, the processes of rebuilding and renewing the party had only begun to gather momentum when the by-elections were called. The PNP's candidate in SE St Mary, Dr Shane Alexis, who was making his debut in representational politics, had only six weeks to put his campaign together. He was bringing to politics an exemplary record of public service, and all who know him testified to his ironclad integrity. His opponent, Dr Norman Dunn, had remained visible in the constituency after his narrow defeat in the 2016 general election, and had been on the ground for over a year before the by-election was called.
The overwhelming majorities for the PNP in South and SW St Andrew were predictable. In SE St Mary, the results showed a JLP majority of 923 votes of which the Castleton division contributed 802. In the other three divisions: Richmond, Annotto Bay and Belfield - the contest was much closer with the JLP's majority for all three amounting to 121 votes. The question is: How many of the 923 votes which comprised the JLP's majority were induced by the range of vote-buying strategies utilised by the JLP? Can the victory be described as an endorsement of the Holness administration and its management of the country in the absence of any public discussion during the campaign on the three main national issues?
An important lesson to be learned is that an electorate comprised of the most dependent in the society will always be vulnerable to the kind of extensive vote-buying strategies deployed by the JLP in a single constituency. The PNP, however, should not allow itself to be demoralised by this result, nor should it seek to compete with the JLP in corrupting the electoral process. The party's greatest successes have come as a result of the organisation and education of the electorate, and vote-buying on the scale evident in SE St Mary can hardly be repeated in the majority of 63 constituencies in a general election.
"In the 1989 general election, the JLP Government attempted a wholesale bribery of the electorate to compensate for its economic failures by organising its finances to provide for massive public spending on an unprecendented scale in the months leading up to the elections. Millions of dollars were spent in each of the 60 constituencies, and many felt that this would possibly bribe Jamaican voters under hardship to re-elect the Seaga government. This massive programme of public spending was combined with extensive hurricane relief funds" (Carl Stone). None of this worked. The JLP government was voted out.
The deciding factors in the next general election are going to be the economy, crime and corruption. While Peter Phillips enjoys the confidence of the Jamaican people as the most capable manager of the economy in the political class, Prime Minister Holness and his minister of finance, Audley Shaw, have yet to demonstrate that they are up to the task of achieving sustained and equitable economic growth. It is the collapse of the rural economy that opened the door for the proliferation of rural crime, and only a growing economy can provide the sustained investments required for educating and training the labour force required for the modernisation of agriculture. None of this will happen in the prevailing political culture, and any further slide down the slippery political slope will not be avoided as long as the productive classes remain on the sideline and hand over the political process to the most vulnerable in the society.
- Arnold Bertram is a historian and a former minister of government.