Sun | Jan 20, 2019

Martin Henry: A short (and incomplete) history of dutty politics

Published:Sunday | February 14, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

Months before the December 20, 1949 general election, only the second since universal adult suffrage in 1944, the leader of the JLP, Alexander Bustamante, and the leader of the PNP, Norman Manley, signed a peace pledge on behalf of their parties.

Many more such pledges were to be made - and broken - including the commitment to peace by the then party leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga at that famous Bob Marley Peace Concert on April 22, 1978.

Last week, election candidates signed the Political Code of Conduct in an atmosphere of peace, a peace which has not characterised most of Jamaica's political history since 1944, a peace which is not due to the eggshell promises of politicians to behave themselves.

Six weeks before the 1949 polls, The Daily Gleaner said in a scathing editorial on the criminality and violence invading the campaign: "Men who should be considered to be of high dignity too often appear in the company of persons known to be of evil reputation. The election is being conducted in some quarters as if it cannot be won without the support of criminals." That association has continued.

The ink had hardly dried on the peace accord of May 16, 1949, when political violence erupted in Gordon Town during a local government by-election campaign for the KSAC. Both political parties had imported strong-arm thugs into the area, and on July 6, voting day, a man was stoned, beaten and stabbed to death in his yard following clashes between supporters of the JLP and the PNP. This was before guns were injected into the politics.

Rural Gordon Town was again to figure prominently in political violence three decades later when the only MP who has been slain in violent clashes, Roy McGann (PNP), perished there on the night of October 14, 1980, just two weeks before the general election of October 30 in a three-way clash between supporters of the PNP and the JLP and the security forces. Several thousand foot soldiers have been killed over the years, in so far as many murders can be attributed to political causes.

Back in 1949, the colonial governor, Sir John Huggins, within two days of the Gordon Town political murder, appointed Sir Hector Hearne as a one-man commission of enquiry "to nail responsibility to the mast of the party concerned" for instigating the violence.

Sir Hector's report, the first in a series on political violence and corruption-related matters, stirred a great deal of controversy, particularly his nailing to the mast of responsibility for the instigation of the violence in Eastern St Andrew.

But one key finding which stood out, particularly in light of the fresh peace pledge between the JLP and the PNP, was the role of the candidates themselves as instigators of conflict rather than being peacemakers.

The violence had really begun as clashes between rival trade unions from the dawn of the 1940s even before the JLP was formed in 1943. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), aligned to the PNP, which was founded 1938, and the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union BITU, which was without a political party wing before 1943, regularly clashed, especially during marches on the streets of Kingston.

As one source tells the story, "The violence between competing labour unions was matched by the violence between the political parties. The battle of Rose Town in October 1947 marked a decisive turn in the fortunes of the PNP, which, since 1943, had been repeatedly beaten off the streets by the JLP. This time, Norman Manley and Ken Hill led the march on a JLP meeting in Rose Town after two members of the PNP passing by the JLP crowd had been severely beaten. After the encounter, the JLP reported two dead and 37 injured, while seven PNP supporters received injuries.

"The dominance of the PNP on the streets of Kingston, and the increasing popularity of Ken Hill, led Bustamante to leave the constituency of West Kingston for a safer seat in the sugar belt of Clarendon, where the strength of the BITU certainly enhanced his electoral prospects."

But violence associated with politics never left West Kingston. Western Kingston was the centre of the first state of public emergency declared by the Government in independent Jamaica in 1966 following prolonged violence between JLP and PNP supporters in the area. "Government acts to stamp out political violence," The Daily Gleaner reported on October 4, 1966, two days into the 33-day state of emergency. "Dragnet searches Western H/Q of PNP and JLP. Police, military cordon off trouble zone. McNeill [Minister of Home Affairs]: Gov't has decided to crush campaign of violence."

Three of the five states of emergency imposed since Independence have been connected to violence associated with politics: 1966, violence in Western Kingston; 1976,escalating political violence in an election year; 2010, violence stemming from attempts to arrest the area leader of the political enclave of Tivoli Gardens in Western Kingston.

Before Independence, in 1946, following the deadly clashes between party and trade union forces during a TUC-led strike at Bellevue Mental Hospital, the Bustamante Government had imposed a short state of emergency in a bid to restore order.

Thugs and gangs, some recruited from other activities, some created specifically for the purpose, had always been important to political enforcement from the start. Their weapons were sticks and stones. So the May 18, 1949 editorial of The Daily Gleaner bade "goodbye to bricks and sticks" following the bipartisan peace accord two days before.

The 1967 general election campaign saw guns being decisively injected into political conflict. And the process of constructing political enclaves through violence and political patronage began in earnest. Just looking at the shift in the percentage of votes cast for both parties in particular constituencies tells the story.

Housing was used to create enclaves of one party's supporters. In the terror campaigns around the 1976 and 1980 general elections supporters of the other side were chased out of neighbourhoods with gunfire and Molotov cocktail fires. There are benchmark atrocities of violence in the story. On election day, bogus voting and the stuffing of ballot boxes for one side by enforcers was the order of the day.

Urban constituencies with garrison communities of both parties in close proximity were particularly violent as these armed communities clashed across their border. "In coming to terms with Jamaica's high rates of violent crime," another source says, "we need to track the development of the garrison phenomenon. The growth of the garrison communities has been one of the key factors in the development of crime and violence in Jamaica. These communities also represent an important set of sites where the political process has been linked to criminality."

In 1993, such high levels of blatant electoral fraud so marred the general election of that year that the Electoral Advisory Committee was forced to consider "whether in a number of constituencies one can really say an election has taken place or can take place because of the stealing of a high percentage of boxes and ballots".

The political ombudsman of the time, Justice James Kerr, who would later chair the Committee on Political Tribalism in 1996-1997, wrote about the Kingston and St. Andrew garrisons: "It is in these parishes that intimidation, stealing of ballot boxes and interference with the electoral process reached unprecedented extent and brazenry that caused these elections to be labelled the worst since adult suffrage came to the country in 1944."

The next general election in 1997 marked a turnaround. Politicians and their activist supporters had not grown any more honest or less inclined to dutty politics. Driven by the EAC, changes in electoral law had been adopted providing stiffer penalties for electoral malpractices and the power to void election results affected by illegal practices.

The February 25 general election is set to be among the most peaceful and fraud-free since 1944. But the bitter fruits of dutty politics are all around us. And nowhere more so than in our crime stats.

Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and