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Voting behaviour and bribery in Jamaica
published: Sunday | July 8, 2007

Robert Buddan, Contributor

On May 10, The Gleaner reported some important findings from a survey conducted by Market Research Limited and commissioned by the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ). One of its finding was that 82 per cent of Jamaicans said that they had never been promised money or any gift to vote for a candidate or a political party. Only 11 per cent said this did take place. This information undermines the popular thesis of voting behaviour and vote bribery in Jamaica.

According to this thesis, political parties win elections by bribing voters with money or gifts in exchange for their votes. This is a crude version of an idea that Carl Stone explored almost 30 years ago. Stone wanted to find out why the parties had so regularl in Government every two terms. He identified swing constituencies and proposed that political patronage was used to cause these swings.

Stone, however, never demonstrated this. He never asked the question: "Have you ever been offered money or gifts to vote for a candidate or a party?' Virtually no political survey has asked this question. This is surprising in a country where the notion is so ingrained that patronage is the defining feature of voting behaviour. One survey a few years ago asked a similar question. Less than 10 per cent had said that they had voted on this basis. Public opinion surveys usually show that voters favour a party for reasons other than patronage. They might like the party, its leader and its policies and believe that it would do a good job forming the Government. This makes Jamaica no different from what one would expect of democratic voting behaviour.

The other finding of the EOJ survey, however, found that 57 per cent of Jamaicans would accept money or gifts in exchange for their votes. This supports the clientlist thesis that Jamaican voters will trade their votes for benefits. But we do not know how this compares with voters in other countries because we do not have the comparative studies to tell us. Again, I do not believe that Jamaicans would be unique in this regard.

The idea of patron-clientelism brings two phenomena together. Patrons (parties and politicians) offer bribes (inducements and incentives) to voters (clients) who are assumed to be materialist voters, meaning that they place material rewards above everything else in calculating who they will vote for. What the EOJ/Market Research data show is that the two phenomena have separate lives. Patrons might not practice patronage to any great extent even though voters might desire that they do. Therefore, voting behaviour and electoral outcomes might not be determined by patronage any more than the influence of other factors. Even so, it could still make a difference.


Carl Stone had once surmised that many Jamaican voters were materialist in the sense that they regarded voting (and democracy in general) more as an opportunity for material gain than as a system of rights and duties to respect. The EOJ data lend support to this. At the same time, Stone's own findings, supported by our other polls, show that significant numbers of voters regard themselves as issues voters influenced by policies and also by family and community traditions.

The categories of materialist and non-materialist voters overlap with the non-materialist category being generally predominant. It might be that at election time, many materialist voters do not vote or vote primarily for non-materialist reasons since there is little patronage actually offered. Many of those who decide not to vote might be materialist voters whose expectations for pay-offs are not met. Those who do vote might be forced to do so for other reasons. The non-materialist voters would vote on issues/policies, family and community traditions. Non-materialist voters would also comprise parts of the swing voters. All of this reduces the influence of patron-clientelism on voting behaviour.

The danger of exaggerating the impact of patron-clientelism and materialist voting in Jamaica is that it reflects unfairly on Jamaican politics. It suggests that parties have no issues to offer. Worse, it reflects badly on the Jamaican voter. The voter is seen as an unsophisticated, uninformed individual with a simple one-dimensional material interest in politics who can be bought and who responds to nothing more than handouts. There is much more to the voter's universe than this.

Our surveys show that voters are concerned about crime, jobs, trust, credibility, leadership, education, prices and the range of hopes and anxieties that these create for individuals, families, communities and nation. Had we not felt that these were important, we would not be asking questions of voters about these issues and we would not be interested in what they have to say. Besides, politicians know that patronage is not a reliable predictor of how someone will vote. The purely materialist voter can take a gift from one politician and vote for another. It has happened. A politician once told of a boatman in Old Harbour for whom he co-signed a bank guarantee for a new boat engine, only to discover that the man later voted for his opponent and he was left to pay off the loan when the man disappeared.


Still patronage and coerced voting must be addressed. The Political Code of Conduct bars candidates and parties (or anyone) from using funds to influence electoral choice. Voters and parties should therefore report to the Political Ombudsman those cases of vote bribery that they know of. The Code of Conduct and the office of the Political Ombudsman, in other words, exist in part to address patronage. The Code of Conduct, however, does not say if any action can be taken against the voter (the client) for accepting money or gifts in exchange for the vote.

Patronage also makes it pertinent to have a law that penalises open voting. The Political Code of Conduct says that no person should be forced to declare his or her political affiliation. The idea is to penalise open voting because voters can be made to declare how they have voted in order to confirm that they have voted as required by those who coerce voters or bribe them. The law against open voting is therefore a law that seeks to protect the voter from patronage politics. It is the survey finding that many voters are willing to trade their votes for gifts that has confirmed the importance of a law against open voting. In this case, the voter would face stiff penalty for publicly declaring his or her vote.

Parliamentarians and members of the Electoral Commission should be given credit for this law because through it, they are attempting to distance themselves and the political system from voter intimidation and voter bribery. With this law and the Political Code of Conduct, Jamaica should be able to say that it is not being passive to undemocratic electoral practices. The EOJ/Market Research survey has shown that parties do not, as a general practice, offer bribes in exchange for voter support. But voters are willing to take bribes and as long as this is the case, democratic voting will be potentially undermined.

Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, Mona, UWI. Email:

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