With the general election looming, garrison constituencies have again come into focus, with calls for them to be dismantled. The new prime minister, in his acceptance speech, addressed the national problem with the stated need to come to terms with them.
He even asked Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller to walk symbolically with him through their two constituencies. It is of interest to note that the prime minister's constituency is a swing seat, with pockets of garrison behaviour, while the opposition leader's constituency is an absolute garrison constituency.
As we reflect on the topic, we need to discuss the definitions and establishment of these political constituencies. Garrison constituencies are associated with the principle of political tribalism often associated with community dons and criminal networks. This article will quote extensively from the second CAFFE report titled The Continuing Electoral Reform Process in Jamaica with the 1998 Local Government Elections.
CAFFE - Citizens' Action for Free and Fair Elections - was launched on September 3, 1997, just 15 weeks before the general election held on December 18, 1997. As its name implies, the organisation became a standard-bearer in the challenge to corruption in the Jamaican electoral process. Richard Coe, who was the managing director of Courts and a CAFFE volunteer in the first elections that it observed, noted:
"It is clear that the development of garrison communities has been a real threat to the democratic process."
The Committee on Political Tribalism made the following significant observations.
The committee further noted that garrison communities are created by:
1. The development of large-scale housing schemes by the State and the allocation of the houses therein to supporters of the party in power.
2. Homogenisation by the dominant party activists, pushing out the minority from within and guarding against intrusion from outside.
3. The expelled persons establishing a squatter community.
Garrison constituencies may be those in which an overwhelming majority of the voters are totally committed to one political party. Examples are Kingston Western, St Andrew Southern and St Andrew South West.
In other cases, a constituency is characterised by pockets of garrison behaviour, with supporters from both the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Good examples of this are Kingston Central and St Andrew West Central.
In addition to the concept of a garrison constituency, there is also the principle of safe seats or those with entrenched political support.
The question arises as to what level of supportive vote for a candidate should constitute a garrison vote. The CAFFE report mentioned above used a vote of 75 per cent and more to define a garrison constituency in numerical terms. This is the figure that is used in the report for the three general elections: 1989, 1993 and 1997. The growth of garrisons between 1989 and 1993 was an alarming trend, though the sharp reduction in 1997 would have to be seen as an encouraging sign.
Garrisonism is still deeply entrenched in four major areas of the Corporate Area: one for the JLP and three for the PNP. These are: Kingston Western (JLP), and St Andrew South West, St Andrew South; and Kingston East and Port Royal for the PNP.
Dealing with the Garrisons
It is clear that garrison behaviour is a cultural phenomenon induced by political tribalism, nurtured by community dons and supported by gang-related criminal elements.
The evidence suggests that as the population becomes more literate and informed, the curry goat-and-rice philosophy of buying support will gradually disappear. The last election in 2007 revealed a much closer voting pattern with the narrow majority of the JLP. This is good for voting, for candidates and parties should be based on principles and quality rather than blind party loyalty.
Some important directions which need to be pursued to deal with the blind loyalty that divides Jamaicans, at election time and afterwards, are the following.
Education: Increased access to education and a greater understanding of local, national and international issues will help in the decision-making process of the average voter.
Crime control: Crime in garrison constituencies leads to a community of fear and the anti-informer culture. The role of the don needs to be reversed from being a ruler to that of servant.
The Church: Christians have an important role to play in polarised communities. They need to bring the values of civility, care, and love among citizens, which transcend political loyalties.
Employment and business opportunities: Initiatives to develop community enterprise and business programmes are critical. The work in Trench Town by the outstanding Christian leader and entrepreneurial advocate, Dr Henley Morgan, needs to be replicated in other communities.
Sports and community activities: The support for community teams fosters a healthy spirit, and schools and community teams bring out the need for discipline and hard work.
Social action: Government, international and other civic organisations can play an important role in fostering self-reliance, discipline, and self-worth initiatives in communities.
The garrison - whether in the shape of community or constituency - is a blot on the national psyche. We must, as a nation, make every effort to bring these areas more into the national pool of people that belong, not to a party, but to Jamaica.
Alfred Sangster is former chairman of CAFFE. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.