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Which more important to Portia: election or history?

Published:Sunday | March 1, 2015 | 3:00 AM
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller greeting supporters outside Parliament on February 19.

This will probably be a fateful year for the People's National Party (PNP), and quite possibly the country as well.

For decades, we've had a clientelistic form of politics in Jamaica. Governments were built on sometimes shaky coalitions between popular support and corporate backers. Each party built close ties to business interests, delivering favourable policies and patronage plums in return for party donations and favours to politicians and their families. Such a policy regime was good for individual businesses, but not good for business at large. Still, it did generate pay-offs for the political class.

But to get power, they still needed votes. That's where the popular support came in. Winning it was done with a politics of the belly. Political office gave the victor in elections control over the large patronage - well, the Jamaican State had evolved into. It could be used to deliver jobs and handouts for supporters. Some of these took direct form, like the ubiquitous wave of board appointments for party activists which follow each election. But most took more indirect form, like new employment or wage increases to trades dominated by party supporters. And so, for instance, it was no accident that teachers and university lecturers, stalwarts of the People's National Party, would often get big promises on the eve of elections, just as they could get neglected when the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) took office.

 

in-office duration

 

Arguably, this model reached the limits of its growth early this century. The unusually long spell of one party in office - 18 years - multiplied and deepened the commitments to supporters. In the course of the period, for instance, public-sector employment rose by half and the public-sector wage bill, as a proportion of GDP, by a third. By the end of it, Jamaica was saddled with a debt so large that virtually all productive activity had given way to investment in government paper.

I would argue that although its reform programme was ultimately aborted, the Bruce Golding administration first broke this nexus when it rebuilt bridges to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank and launched a programme of government retrenchment. Some Leftist critics decried this regime as neo-liberal, but they overlooked the degree to which the old order now served privileged interests at the expense of the majority.

And while it was not the first time a JLP Government rolled back the State, the policy of the Golding years differed from the 1980s model in one crucial respect. The latter occurred in a time in which Cold War foreign aid money was flowing and credit was still abundant, making it possible to sustain patronage. By the time of the Great Financial Crisis, there was no money available from either source. The Government had no choice but to get out of the economy and stay out.

 

Portia's platform

 

When Portia Simpson Miller won power in 2011, she cruised into office on a platform that aimed to restore the status quo ante, pledging an ambitious job-creation programme and a new deal with the IMF. Her problem was that she won power too soon. There was simply no money in the kitty to support her ambitions, and no creditor willing to stump up the cash. In this respect, Mrs Simpson Miller anticipated the sad fate that has befallen Greece's new government, which, like hers, made promises it couldn't keep.

In the event, her bind strengthened the hand of the reformist faction that had coalesced around Peter Phillips, and who took their ideas from liberal economists who had a vision not unlike what Bruce Golding had promoted for the country. The result was a broad continuity in economic policy - with the added advantage of a strong stable government.

Now, as the economy finally resumes growing, the Government faces a dilemma. With an election nearing and the wage freeze coming to an end, the Government will face intense pressure to reward its supporters for their sacrifice. But the Budget has little wiggle room for any kind of 'run wid it'. Generous election gifts to restive voters could hobble the recovery before it gains lift-off. A happy-go-lucky campaign could deliver a short-term boost to the economy, but then return it to its path of chronic sluggishness.

Finance Minister Peter Phillips seems to be committed to seeing through the reform programme. But party supporters are growing antsy. Already, government employees are making wage demands that, if met, would bust the Budget. Ultimately, the prime minister will have to decide whether she backs the minister to the hilt, or pleases her base. Doing the first might seal her place in the history books. But it also might lose her the election.

n John Rapley lectures at the Centre of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.