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Stabroek News

Picking political sense from nonsense
published: Sunday | July 1, 2007

Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor

Once upon a time, Jamaican election polls were easy to understand - if Carl Stone say so, it go so. From 1976 until 1993 the Stone polls were as accurate as any in the world, never being outside the margin of error.

By the 1997 elections Dr. Stone had left us, but again the Stone polls got it right. Apparently, he had passed on his methodologies well.

In the 2002 general elections, however, the final Stone poll predicted a 57 per cent to 43 per cent PNP win, far outside the actual four percent margin. Some still say this last-minute poll helped the PNP win a fourth straight term. Whatever the facts, the credibility of not only Stone but all other Jamaican political polls were badly tarnished.

According to an article in The Observer of October 15, 2002, and also by D.K. Duncan in The Gleaner of October 22, 2002, Bill Johnson had it at 59 per cent PNP to 41 per cent JLP (when uncommitted and third party support were excluded); Don Anderson put the PNP 5.4 per cent ahead and was almost dead on. But no one was close on voter turnout. Actual turnout was 59 per cent, but Anderson predicted 77 per cent, Johnson 74 per cent and Stone 72 per cent.

More accurate

The average of all available polls tends to be more accurate than any single poll. But in 2002 our three national pollsters were off by an average of eight per cent on party standings and 15 per cent on voter turnout.

Probability-based polls are in theory a big advance on gut feelings and rum bar talk. But polls are only useful if they have accurately predicted the recent future. None of our published pollsters have been within the margin of error consecutively in the last two general elections. For some reason, after two decades of generally reflecting on the ground reality, political polls in Jamaica can no longer be trusted to tell us what is really going on out there.

So where do the parties stand? Well, there's a definite sentiment for change in the air, but also irritation at the JLP's inability to present any coherent plan, especially on crime. As someone exclaimed to me "I want a change! But if I vote for Labour, what am I voting for?"

It's incredible that after five years the JLP still does not have a new manifesto out. Nor does the PNP, of course, but a four-term government runs on its record.

Eighteen years is more than enough time to implement all your good ideas. An opposition, however, has to show people it has a clear concept of what it will do if entrusted with power. Labour keeps promising to show us its plan and not delivering. Some wonder if they actually have one.

A little story

Once there was a woman named Jackie who had lived with Pedro for 18 years. Pedro was a lousy lover and kept leaving Jackie unsatisfied, but 'him was full of sweet mouth' and kept saying "Next time it will be really good baby!" Now Johnny next door kept telling Jackie, "Baby, me can do the wuk good so just give me a chance." But Johnny used to drive an old beat-up car that turned Jackie off.

One day, however, Johnny came by with a new car and invited Jackie over. Thinking of her one-minute Pedro, she decided to see if Johnny really could do it better. So she went to his bedroom and took off her clothes and lay down, and waited and waited and waited. Finally in frustration she shouted "Listen Johnny, hurry up and do it or I going back to Pedro! Better a one-minute man than a man who can't even get it up!"

Many Comrades say Portia represents the change Jamaicans want, though that very catchy 'We not changing course!' G2K ad shows this might be a hard sell. You also hear muttering that "People don't trust Bruce.", as well as complaints that "Portia is not acting prime ministerial."

Both parties claim to be confident of victory, but they would say that, wouldn't they? JLP supporters do appear more confident than PNP ones, though. You hear a lot of "I think we are going to win but it will be close" from Comrades. The common Labourite talk is "It's time for a change and we winning this one for sure!" False optimism or the scent of victory?

But suppose it really is too close to call on voting day? Knife-edge elections are not that uncommon. In the last 18 months or so Germany, Costa Rica, Italy, the Czech Republic and Mexico all saw elections won by less than one per cent. Since World War II Britain has witnessed three - 1951, 1964, 1973 - and America three - 1960, 1968, 2000. In 1951 and 1974 the British party that lost the popular vote actually won the most seats.

In 2000 the American candidate who got the most ballots lost the presidency in the electoral college. Jamaica had a razor-thin election in December 1949 when the PNP won the popular vote 43.5 per cent to 42.9 per cent and the JLP won 17 of 30 seats. But the British Crown held ultimate power then, which limited any scope for upheaval.

Test of democracy

The real test of democracy is not so much that the side that gets the most votes governs, but that the defeated side doesn't head for the hills, guns ablaze. It hardly matters if 50.1 per cent or 49.9 per cent of the people voted for the party that governs them. What is crucial is that the side that loses, under whatever rules were agreed upon before ballots were cast, accepts the results without shouting 'We was robbed' loudly enough for guns to bark.

What would happen if we get a 30-30 election result with a couple seats decided by less than 50 votes? Maybe both sides would calmly work out a mutually agreed upon solution in the best interests of the country. Maybe we would have mass demonstrations a la Mexico. Or maybe hotheaded diehards would bawl 'Ballot box thief fe dead!' and start shooting.

Which brings up the garrison phenomenon. The PNP is reckoned by most to have a seven to three advantage in this area. Could Jamaica claim to be a democracy if its government was decided in constituencies where people cannot vote freely and fairly? Incidentally, whatever happened to the pledges of Bruce Golding and Portia Simpson Miller to break down the garrison walls? When are they going to fulfil their promises to walk hand-in-hand through the inner city? How about Nomination Day, Prime Minister and Opposition Leader?

Our constitution doesn't even address the tied-seat situation. Given the potential for chaos, can't the Governor-General, the Electoral Commissioner, the Ombudsman, the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader formulate a contingency plan of action? Ideally, all sides would sign an agreed-upon code of conduct. Yes, there is no guarantee everyone would stick to it. But at least there would be a set point of reference.

It's easier to remain rational in hypothetical situations than in the actual heat of battle. The current open voting imbroglio shows how election fever scrambles brains. If educated senators and parliamentarians can't agree on something so basic before elections have been called, imagine the angry confusion of a tied-seat count. Why wait till a fire starts to check the hydrants?

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