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Scrap first-past-the-post system

Published:Monday | January 16, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Ken Jones

The need to consider proportional representation as the format for Jamaican elections was never so emphasised as in the recent elections in which the winning party got just under 53 per cent of the votes cast but 66.66 per cent of the seats in Parliament.

In 2007, the winning party got 50.3 per cent of the votes and 53 per cent of the seats. It is not the first time that this discrepancy has occurred, but now the matter requires more serious attention with a government having a two-thirds parliamentary majority and almost dictatorial power, even though it got the actual support of only 28 per cent of the eligible voters.

While there is no question about which party got the most votes, our system of electing parliamentary representatives falls far short of what we like to call democracy. The balloting may be free and fair, but the disproportionate sharing of seats in the House does not truly reflect the will of the people.

Absolute power dangerous

A fact missed by so many observers is that the opinion pollsters who predicted a neck-and-neck race did not make the glaring mistake that the outcome of 42-21 would suggest. Had the electoral system been based on the fairer, more democratic proportional representation, the PNP would have won roughly 34 seats to the JLP's 29. This result would have been much closer to the findings of the opinion pollsters.

The official election returns indicate that among those who voted, there was a need for change, but not to the extent of giving the governing party the awesome power of a two-thirds majority. Nevertheless, the present electoral arrangement has made it so, and there is no telling if this parliamentary power will be used to promote party interest above what is good for the country. In any event, based on the national voting pattern, we have ended up with orderly 'people power' being somewhat less than 'parliamentary power'.

The underlying principle of proportional representation is that contending parties gain seats in proportion to their strength among the electorate. This is only fair, yet the political parties have never shown much interest in it. They seem to prefer the existing system, which is more influenced by gerrymandering of constituencies, the cult of personality and the establishing of garrisons and safe seats. Incidentally, this business of garrisons and safe seats is partly responsible for low voter turnout where the elector feels that his/her vote does not matter.

All votes not equal

The antiquated 200-year-old first-past-the-post electoral system makes nonsense of the idea that all our votes are equally important. Under this system, the value of the vote is different from constituency to constituency and from parish to parish. For instance, 5,383 Jamaicans voted for Delroy Chuck in North East St Andrew; and he won. In another part of the same parish (East Rural), Joan Gordon-Webley got the support of 9,372 Jamaicans; and she lost. In Central Kingston, Ronald Thwaites won with 5,898, while in Central Manchester Danville Walker lost with 10,067.

Clearly the scale in each case was differently balanced.

We can feel proud that our election machinery is running fairly well. However, it is unwise to ignore the fact that democracy in Jamaica is becoming a mockery when so many people are not participating in the process of selecting a government.

The jeopardy has now increased to the point where a government can acquire the power and authority of a two-thirds majority, while able to claim the actual support of only 28 per cent of the eligible electorate.

It is cause for alarm that nearly half the population of eligible voters is showing no active interest in how the country is run. There needs to be greater people involvement in the process; and reforming the voting system, perhaps along the lines of proportional representation, could be one useful step towards reconnecting people and politics.

Ken Jones is a communication specialist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and kensjones2002@yahoo.com.