Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Election 2016: What are the key issues?

Published:Sunday | February 21, 2016 | 2:00 AM
Martin Henry
A voter places her ballot in a box during the 1980 general election. Citizenship goes way beyond merely inking your finger and marking an X, says columnist Martin Henry.
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Unless the acrobatics of this election campaign manage to arouse large numbers of uncommitted voters, a miracle of the order of the resurrection of Lazarus, four days dead, not much more than 50 per cent of the electorate is likely to cast ballots on V-Day, four days hence.

Continuing a declining trend, voter turnout stood at only 53 per cent for the 2011 general election. And this trend is almost universal as voters everywhere catch on to the hoax of the vote.

The polls have also been reporting that a half of the electorate has either decided not to vote or doesn't see what to vote for and so are 'undecided'. As a communications man, I rather like the advertisements in both electronic and print media. Mostly tasteful, subdued and sophisticated without the raucous 'ray-ray' of another era past. They just sort of merge with the business ads for products and services.

People have rational reasons not to vote which must be respected. So I am not about to join church and civil society to preach at them seeking to urge them, frighten them, or shame them, into voting. In the rigged 'democratic' system of two competing political parties alternating in government, people often see no real difference which would warrant making a rational choice between them. The PNP and JLP have ideologically collided in the political middle and are contorting themselves in some really clownish ways in an effort to differentiate themselves.

Even when there are some visible operational differences, people may honestly feel that no party's programme reasonably represents their interests and expectations and decline to endorse either merely as an imposed duty.

And certainly in the Jamaican context, people may wish not to engage with political organisations which are guilty of crimes and atrocities against citizens, even at the level of casting a vote. Our history of political violence has left both the PNP and the JLP and their leadership with bloody hands all the way up to the national heroes who led them.

And some people may be conscientiously attached to another world, do not wish to engage the politics of this world, and are willing to live under any system in which they find themselves as they await a new world. Others don't have to agree with them to 'llow them. This is a democracy, right?

Many of the urgers have been grounding the rights of citizens in voting. Basically arguing that if you haven't cast a vote you shouldn't expect to have a say in the affairs of state. Not true. Not even rational. The State has been around for a long time. Certainly before the first vote was cast anywhere. A key part of the hoax of democracy is urging the supremacy of the vote, even when there isn't much to choose. The citizen (the subject in the age of monarchy) has rights and privileges grounded in membership of a state.

By definition, the 'citizen' is a free person participating in the life of the state. And voting is only one means and one level of participation. One of the critical failures of the Jamaican state is the failure to cultivate citizenship, the commitment to the state and the engaging of the affairs of the state well beyond voting. We know how to be voters, we are engaged as consumers, workers, employers, students, patients, constituents, taxpayers - everything else except citizens.

By the way, paying taxes, as everybody does one way or another, is far more basic for citizenship than voting. People were citizens long before they were voters. The birth cry of modern democracy was 'no taxation without representation'.

The citizen must vigorously engage lawmaking by his representatives. But when invited to do so by responding to the Green Papers through which the Parliament invites public response to bills, there are pitifully few such responses. We don't lobby the Parliament and petition our representatives. We don't engage public policy formulation nearly enough through the available channels and the channels we could create for ourselves.

Alternatives to the political parties

We don't form enough 'political' groups of civil society as alternatives to the political parties, not to replace them in forming a government but to apply pressure for good behaviour and good performance. We vote. And go home. In declining numbers.

Thursday's great victory will be decided by the usual. Elections are not won and lost in our 'democracy', on issues except in the rare conditions like those presented by the 1980 general election when there was sharp ideological polarisation.

Jamaican elections are won and lost by mobilising party supporters on to the voters' list and out to the polling station on election day, with a little help from swing voters who decide long before expensive campaigns seek to persuade them. And Jamaican voters mostly vote out a government they are fed up with rather than vote in a government whose promises sweet them more. The tradition of the broom to sweep them out!

Big issues

It is easy to think that the big issues of this high-theatre, low-impact election campaign are Andrew's big house, bipartisan conning, and the debates that haven't happened. Or even growing the economy to which both parties are fervidly committed - as they have been as a political posture and point of competition for 40-odd years. In fairness, the growth data in the official statistics are there for all to compare and decide about.

The morning after February 25, or just as soon as the new government is sworn in (new government, not necessarily new party), will see exactly the same set of core issues facing the Jamaican State and over which there is no significant variance between the two parties. Despite the political and quite nonsensical hype about who took Jamaica to and back from the brink, the hard economic fact is that from around 2008, the big economic numbers have been generally moving in the right direction.

The baton of fiscal discipline was passed from Audley Shaw to Peter Phillips. Shaw was minister of finance under far more difficult external circumstances in the midst of the worse global recession since the 1930s.

The percentage of Budget spent on debt servicing has progressively trended down under the last two administrations from nearly two-thirds to 48 per cent of the 2015-2016 Budget. The next finance minister has zero option not to peg down the public-sector wage bill and to complete pension reform and the rest of the reform agenda.

Shaw and Phillips may juggle a little differently, but, as smart Jamaicans know, the game set under our circumstances and commitments.

Let no one fool you with sweet talk. Those hundreds of thousands of jobs and growth promised - again - will not materialise under current to midterm economic conditions. In fact, we should expect substantial attrition out of the public service.

But Government has even more fundamental responsibilities than managing an economy. While having little faith in manifestos, I am nonetheless very heartened to see on both parties' campaign platform a commitment to the most fundamental duties of government everywhere, every time: public safety, law and order, and justice. Public goods for all citizens without sectoral considerations.

Not only are these critical, but neglected factors, of economy, they are the fundamental reason for the State and government, along with the provision of public infrastructure that profit-making private enterprise either can't or won't provide. The new government must provide preferential budgetary support for national security and justice, as I have been advocating for a long time as a citizen.

In our unique brand of dutty tribal democratic politics we despise consensus and continuity even when we have it. We have achieved by consultation multipartite consensus and a road map for continuity in Vision 2030, not only between the political parties vying to form government but among civil society, labour and business, youth and students, and the professions. But you would never know. Not a mention in the campaign.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.