When the winner takes all - Time to rethink our brand of competitive politics?
Christopher Tufton, Guest Columnist
If there is ever a time in our history to focus our minds on the collective challenges of our people and country, even while we focus on our individualistic ambitions of personal attainment, that time is now. Jamaicans have come full circle from the pre-Independence era when hopes of economic attainment and social progress gained momentum with the realisation of sovereignty, and when every Jamaican had a dream to fulfil their ambitions.
After 50 years, hope has gradually turned to frustration and hopelessness for many, particularly the young. One of the significant manifestations of our failing economy is the extent to which our tertiary-level graduates seek economic opportunities outside Jamaica, rather than exploring existing opportunities, or create their own as self-employed entrepreneurs.
Approximately 70 per cent of these graduates eventually migrate, primarily for economic reasons, to North America and Europe. Their motivations and positive outlook towards Jamaica are fundamental to generating the ideas and being the engine to move the country forward. Instead, they leave the country in large numbers each year, not necessarily because they want to, but in pursuit of economic opportunities. Not because of any fault of their own, they become economic refugees. On the positive side, their interests and contacts with Jamaica remain strong and they live in hope that one day they will return.
As a country, we have studied, analysed and concluded on a number of critical realities related to why we are the way we are. We have all agreed that we are an outstanding people, manifested in areas like music, sports, scholarship, but yet we consistently fail, as a nation, to realise economic prosperity. We have had many plans but consistently failed to implement.
LEGACY OF SLAVERY
One theory resides in our historical experiences - being a slave colony characterised by subservience and antisocial behaviour, either in resistance to slavery or in support of it. But even while there are plausible explanations, like the slave trade, for the context and impact of our experiences, isn't it similarly plausible that as an independent nation for the last 50 years, with leaders who have substantially emerged from the context of colonialism, vowing never to return, and who have benefited from education and exposure, that there has been sufficient time to liberate ourselves economically? So why have we not done so?
The answer may reside in the nature of our competitive politics. It is a politics that we inherited from our colonial masters, and practised with only incremental adjustments, to cater to our own experiences. For example, our two-party democracy is sacrosanct, and in preservation of that reality, we spend more time highlighting the areas that divide us than those that could see us unite around a common national good.
As another case, we rename departments and programmes that carry out similar functions in order to limit any credit being given to the opposing administration, and we have a tendency to oppose, oftentimes, just for opposing sake.
This is not to say there are no positives to our exciting democratic tradition. We have pursued our democratic rights vigorously since Independence. We have created institutions that have ensured, for the most part, the right to vote and freedom of speech. We have an open society, where access to technology and transportation allows our people to come and go as they like and trade with other nations.
We have facilitated critical watchdogs over political governance, like the media and organisations within civil society. We have benefited from outstanding brand recognition as a country, and in the process, stimulated critical industries like tourism and the manufacture and trade of agro-processed products. For all this we should be proud.
At the same time, 50 years after Independence, economic growth has eluded us and is increasingly threatening all the gains that we have made.
There is a view that the cause may be in our practice of the Westminster-style democracy in our historical context, which exposes race and class conflict, and entrenched the concept of entitlement and deprivation, and victor and vanquished.
This is evidenced in national elections where the winner takes all, and the loser is hardly recognised. We have entrenched in our political culture the concept of the winner being entitled to state resources, power and authority, and the loser deprived with little say in governance.
It is in this winner-take-all context that motivates hard-fought elections, sometimes violently, because there is a recognition and an expectation that benefits will flow to those who first pass the post, and those who have to settle for second place, even as an opposition MP, have very little to expect and say.
In an attempt to preserve political advantage, political influence is concentrated and allowed to be exerted at every level of society. It is not unusual to see, in the administration of governance, rational men become irrational as they defend their political preferences. And when resources are to be allocated, there is the temptation to allocate more to secure political advantage rather than to generate national advantage.
This driving principle of always seeking political advantage has had significant consequences on our economy and people. We have seen economic maladministration, polarisation of communities, and class and political divisions. This misguided priority has led to debt, anaemic economic growth, and hopelessness that have led to mass migration.
And as we collectively become poorer, there is a tendency, again in pursuit of political advantage, to pander to the poor in a manner that generates support from the poor, but does very little to help them out of poverty.
This is the type of competitive politics that we have practised. This politics has entrenched our hard-core activists but in the process has turned off a significant bloc of Jamaicans who either chose to migrate or remain here and stay out of the political process altogether. In Jamaica today, apathy has become the greatest threat to our democracy. It is not democracy that is at fault, it is the way we have practised our politics.
A CALL FOR CHANGE
It cannot be in the interests of our political leaders, political parties, civil society, and the country to continue in this mode. But does the solution reside solely in changing the practice, or in the structure of our politics?
There is no doubt that the political process is failing to engage the majority of Jamaicans, as evidenced by the continuous low voter turnout. There is a need for change to support consensus around common goals in critical areas like education and macroeconomic stability, while supporting and encouraging a competitive politics that is not polarising, but engages a wider cross section of the Jamaican people.
One suggestion is to introduce an element of proportional representation at the legislative level, preferably in the Senate. This would allow for a more accurate reflection of the absolute vote and serve as a reality check to the winning party, which oftentimes becomes complacent in the reality of the majority seat count, even though that also translates to marginally higher number of absolute votes.
Others argue that the appointees to the Senate should include non-political members drawn from civil society and with the skill sets to act as an objective balance to reviewing legislation and providing objective and studied advice to elected policymakers.
Still, others argue that term limits and a fixed election date should be included in the Constitution to facilitate renewal and encourage continuity around critical policy areas.
These proposals all have their pros and cons and would need to be examined in the context of our current realities. What is clear is that as a country, we need to restore credibility and confidence in national governance.
In that regard, our current practice of competitive politics, while always giving advantage to one side over the other, and allowing for the fundamental democratic principle of one man, one vote, may change governments from time to time, but has done little to lift Jamaica out of its current political and economic malaise.
Dr Chris Tufton is a senator, opposition spokesman on foreign affairs and trade, and investments, and co-executive director of CaPRI. The views in this column do not necessarily represent those of the above-mentioned entities. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.