Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Peter Espeut | Are the garrisons cracking from within?

Published:Sunday | November 5, 2017 | 12:00 AM

One of the of the defining features of garrison constituencies is that they guarantee safe seats for those who create them. Not only are electoral contests one-sided one (the party that controls the garrison gets 85 per cent-plus of the votes) but also - due largely to intimidation - voter turnout is characteristically high. On more than one occasion, the garrison politician won by more than 100 per cent of the possible votes (confirming electoral fraud). In one case I remember, the winning garrison politician received in excess of 106 per cent of the number of electors on the roll!

The very existence of garrison constituencies is a blight on our democracy; if one party has a large number of garrison constituencies, this could be a determining factor in general elections, and could threaten the claim of Jamaica to be a democratic country.

I cannot give even qualified support to any political party that maintains garrison constituencies, and I believe that my Christian friends who do so have profoundly compromised their ethics and morality. Every time I enter a polling station to cast my vote, I have to figuratively hold my nose.

From the beginning of my almost 25 years as a weekly columnist with this newspaper, I have called on the political parties to dismantle their garrisons; and so have numerous other persons and organisations. On some rare occasions, various politicians have agreed that garrisons should be dismantled, but not one concrete step has been taken so to do by anyone! They obviously don't really want to.

I wonder whether the results of last Monday's by-elections are an indication that the walls of at least two of the garrisons have begun to crack from within?

Just looking at the margins of victory in South West St Andrew and South St Andrew, the PNP garrisons appear to be intact: Angela Brown Burke won 97 per cent of the votes cast, and Mark Golding received 87 per cent of the votes cast; but the turnout was relatively low: 26 per cent in South West and 30 per cent in South, compared to 45 per cent for both in the 2016 general election.

 

PARTIES LOSING THEIR GRIPS

 

The truth is that even the turnout in the garrisons in the 2016 general election was low. Are the parties losing their grips on their zones of political exclusion? I believe so.

We all know the benefit to the politicians of having a garrison constituency (they will have a guaranteed seat in Jamaica's Honourable House of Parliament), but what is in it for the residents? Maybe they expect their garrison dons to give them relatively crime-free communities (they always boasted that there were no murders or rapes in the garrisons). Maybe they expect their members of parliament to use state resources to improve their physical environment and infrastructure, and their personal resources to provide patronage of various sorts, especially at election time.

But the People's National Party garrison constituencies of South West St Andrew and South St Andrew have obviously poor physical infrastructure, and below-average quality of housing stock, and the crime rate is rising. In Monday's by-elections, almost all the party resources went into South East St Mary; the voters in the garrison constituencies were taken for granted! No wonder the turnout took such a big drop!

If the politicians won't dismantle garrisons, maybe the residents will! As we lose confidence that politicians will do the right thing, our confidence in the inherent goodness of the Jamaican people - never mind their adverse circumstances - should increase.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural development scientist.