Ian Boyne: The uncommitted and the election
The political parties are simply holding on to their base and are not exciting the imagination of the Jamaican people. Political apathy and alienation are growing, with many in civil society bemoaning the threat this poses to democracy.
What was striking about the recent Bill Johnson poll results was how much of it was overwhelmingly negative about the Government's, and the prime minister's performance, yet the ruling People's National Party (PNP) is 12 percentage points ahead of its last showing in those polls and is in a statistical dead heat with the opposition party. You would think the Jamaica Labour Party would be significantly ahead.
An unprecedented percentage of persons feel Jamaica is headed in the wrong direction (68 per cent compared to 54 per cent in December 2011), and the prime minister's favourability has plunged from 78 per cent in 2006 to 36 per cent today. The majority also feel crime is beyond this Government's control.
DOWN IN RATINGS
The opposition leader is ahead of Portia, but he is not doing well either as he has gone down in the ratings since the last poll when he should be ascending with the fallout from the austerity programme. The October 11 headline in The Gleaner was 'Useless ... tops the list as Jamaicans think of Simpson Miller and Holness'.
Jamaicans are not turned on by either political leader. The leaders are down to their base and party loyalists. And, of course, the PNP has a stronger base and more loyalists than the JLP. (Forty-five per cent of those who support the PNP do so because of traditional loyalty!)
The campaign, therefore, is for the hearts and minds of the uncommitted. This is why the PNP can ill-afford such embarrassing episodes as what has been dubbed the 'Dead Babies Scandal'. If the PNP is to win the next election, it has to avoid outraging Jamaicans. I guarantee you that with all the trumpeting of what the PNP has achieved in the last four years, compared to the so-called missing years of the Golding administration, all of that will make no difference if people are outraged over any scandal or arrogant behaviour.
The PNP, undoubtedly, has some solid achievements, but all of that can be wiped out by one emotive issue or scandal. The party had better hope that this dead babies issue dies out and that no other matter of its magnitude arises before the election. That might be one too many. People are moved by emotions, not reason. It is not the party with the best arguments that will gain the most votes. It is the party that can best manipulate emotions, sentiments and tug at heart-strings.
Don't get me wrong. Some of the uncommitted will be influenced by reason and argumentation. Indeed, the parry that wins will have to have an effective blend of the emotive and the reasoned. I have no doubt where the weighting is, but I do not discount good argumentation in reaching the uncommitted.
The PNP will continue to make its strong case for the necessity of its economic reform programme. Already, the private sector is solidly on the Government's side, even while it demands a specific growth strategy.
The JLP will have to contend with the PNP's economic record. Audley Shaw can talk about how much value the dollar has lost and how that has affected purchasing power, but he has to reckon with our low inflation figures, high NIR numbers, low interest rates, primary surplus, and reduced debt to GDP.
Dismissing the passing of IMF tests might earn a "pram, pram!" at political rallies, but some uncommitted people see the connection between passing these tests and our ability to attract investments like those we have been chalking up in tourism and projects like that one announced for Spanish Town last week, with a job forecast of 10,000.
But, similarly, thinking people will reject the PNP's framing of the Golding years. The PNP's convenient amnesia about the global economic crisis that struck right after the JLP came to power will not play with thinking, analytical people. Talking about how the debt was racked up between 2007 and 2011, without putting that in the context of what happened globally, is disingenuous and will be seen as such by those who are not partisans.
The rewriting of history to suit PNP propaganda will further turn off the thinking element in the uncommitted.
The JLP's minimising of the concrete successes of the PNP's economic reform programme will also be dismissed for the cheap propaganda that it is. What I suspect, though, is that the parties will go more for the visceral, the emotive, the glandular; the kind of sideshows that characterise this whole Malahoo Forte bathroom/lunchroom trivia.
Already, we in media are being bombarded by daily releases by the political parties and their various arms and spokespersons defending their party line, however absurd the position. It's a damn silly season. The parties, in my view, are marginalising themselves more and more and just turning off non-partisans.
People who are beating up on those who are refusing or reluctant to vote should spend some of their effort trying to convince the parties to make some sense and to make themselves attractive to the uncommitted. I put it to you that it is not just apathy, lack of interest or mindless disillusionment that prevents some people from voting. Some do not vote out of protest. Their non-vote is a vote against these two parties. And I suggest to you that non-voting can be as much a democratic option as voting for one of these two tribes.
Do not seek to typecast everyone who does not vote as irresponsible, anti-democratic and unpatriotic. It can be an act of patriotism not to vote - to make a profound statement by absenting oneself from a failed political project - to register a point. Carlton Gordon, a long-time friend, is, therefore, misguided when he writes in his Letter of the Day published in last Wednesday's Gleaner that, "By failing to take this opportunity when it is presented this time, the erstwhile uncommitted may well qualify to be justifiably advised, hereafter, to 'forever hold your peace', your opinions and your complaints."
But what if someone genuinely feels there's no better herring, no better barrel? What if he feels it makes no difference which party wins the election, for it will be the same class in power? What if someone believes that the two parties are just a variation on essentially the same theme and that there is no viable third party?
It is a fact that many people who don't vote just don't take enough interest in national development. For many, it is, indeed, just apathy. But even that goes back to a failure of our political class. If more members of that class were sterling and shining examples of service and excellence, more young people would be excited about becoming involved. The failures of our political class have turned off people. That's why progressive young people like Damion Crawford are frustrated. Yes, Damion made some strategic blunders and should have made some compromises and know how to wisely navigate rough waters.
But he faced real constraints in going for a new kind of politics. Politics in Jamaica has largely lost its soul. It is not about ideas and ideals. It is more about personality and pragmatism. People rejoice that our politics has become non-ideological, but I see that as a tragedy and a contributing factor to increasing apathy and disaffection. Politics is now largely about spoils and scarce benefits. (And this does not only refer to the poor. The moneyed classes give their support for these benefits, too. That is why campaign-finance reform is so critically important.)
Crawford laments in a Sunday Observer front-page story of October 11: "Ideological debates have died to the point whereby the only differentiator between one politician and the next is who like you more. It's now an emotional campaign, and because that is so, you have to make a man perceive you to be his friend because it's not about principles and ideologies." If politics is devoid of principles and ideology, that's a politics to be uncommitted to and to protest against.
Perhaps the political parties will begin to believe the Jamaican people deserve better when more people send them a clear message by boycotting their elections.