Editorial | Civics, democracy institute makes sense
Prime Minister Andrew Holness is right that good and honest representation will help to re-engage citizens to Jamaica’s political process. That, however, does not obviate the logic of Dr Peter Phillips’ case for something institutional, and sustained, to deepen understanding of, and crafting programmes to confront the apathy that contributed to more than 60 per cent of voters opting out of this month’s general election.
Indeed, Dr Phillips is correct that the coronavirus pandemic is not a sufficient explanation for the mere 37.2 per cent of the electorate – the lowest since Universal Adult Suffrage 76 years ago – who voted in the September 3 poll. For this turnout continued a trend that has worsened over recent elections, following the 48.37 per cent in the 2016 general election and 53.17 per cent in 2011.
The decline in voter participation has not, up to now, questioned the legitimacy of the governments produced by the elections. Jamaicans perceive the outcomes to reflect the will of the people, helped by the belief that the process is free and fair. Critically, there is no concerted effort to disenfranchise voters.
Dr Phillips, the outgoing leader of the opposition People’s National Party, is nonetheless on good grounds in his fear of the potential damage to “the foundations of our democracy” if the erosion remains unchecked and the citizens consider the right to vote of no real value, except, perhaps, as a commodity to be traded to the highest bidder.
With respect to the former, such apathy, and the cynicism it breeds, creates the environment in which authoritarians breed and thrive. Autocrats best gain purchase when no one pays attention. Regarding the latter, the commoditisation of politics puts our democracy on the block to the people with deep pockets and the ability, or willingness, to bid highest for its control. The risk here is not only of poor voters demanding a few dollars in exchange for their ballot. In time, it might not be far-fetched to question whether legislators and the executive are mere proxies for special interests, including terrorists, money launderers and narco-criminals.
RECOGNISING VOTER APATHY
In the face of such dangers, the prime minister was on point in recognising that voter apathy has something to do with how “we conduct ourselves as leaders” and in his exhortation to legislators, especially those in Government, to operate with “integrity, dignity and efficiency”. That is a sentiment which Mr Holness has repeated since his party’s emphatic win in the election. It resonates because of the several corruption scandals that dogged his previous administration. The larger question, though, is whether “by dint of that alone we can re-energise and reignite in our citizens and in our voters participation in the most important right – the right to vote”, as Mr Holness suggested.
The fact is that trust in Jamaican institutions is badly eroded. For instance, several studies in recent years have shown that hardly more than half of Jamaicans have faith in the legislature. The situation is worse for political parties, or for faith in democracy. Indeed, while Jamaica (60.6 per cent) demonstrated the highest level of political tolerance among the Latin American and Caribbean countries surveyed in the 2018-19 report on attitudes to democracy in the hemisphere, coordinated by Vanderbilt University, the report found support for democracy at only 51.2 per cent. Moreover, 65 per cent of Jamaicans would tolerate a military coup to combat crime, and 58.3 per cent would do so if the target was corruption.
It is against this backdrop that we believe that while good and honest behaviour by political leaders is sine qua non for rebuilding trust and reducing political apathy, more is required to get to the deepest roots of the distrust among a citizenry that has grown distracted, disconnected from, and laissez-faire attitude towards the process of democracy. The problem has not only to be understood, but cogent messages devised to address the alienation. The consensus that civics should be part of the island’s school curriculum is good, as is the appreciation that the political parties, separately and jointly, have a responsibility to engage their leaders, members and supporters on the issue.
But Dr Phillips is right about the need for a broader national response, including the establishment of an institution devoted to education in civics, supported by the island’s universities. Our immediate preference, though, would be for an independent institute of civics and thought in democracy, which would focus on research, training, public policy advocacy, public scholarship and citizens’ engagement. Such an institute might envelop existing organisations that are engaged in some of this type of work, like, perhaps, the National Integrity Action.