Sun | Nov 18, 2018

Remedying voter apathy

Published:Sunday | January 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Residents of Trench Town queue up for the polls in the 1972 general election. The national polls in 2011 registered abysmal participation of 53 per cent of the electorate.-File

Ken Jones

The message came in an outpouring of rough, unpolished verbiage; and at first, I was slightly disturbed by Mr Warmington's outburst against people who do not vote but feel entitled to services provided by the State.

However, having brushed aside the balderdash from his speech, I am minded to give him credit for raising an issue that needs to be seriously addressed, but is being carefully avoided by self-seeking politicians who appear to dominate today's political landscape.

Clearly, popular interest in civic and political affairs have been waning since peaking in 1980 at 86.9 per cent. The disastrous trend hit its lowest level in the 2011 general election in which a mere 53 per cent of eligible voters responded to Jamaica's most costly and intensive political campaign carried out by radio, television, newspapers, billboards, the Internet and personal appearances.

The party elected to govern the country was endorsed by a mere 28 per cent of eligible voters, and yet it has more parliamentary power than any other in our history - a two-third majority with a great measure of constitutional authority to determine and dictate how the country is run. This is a dangerous situation.

The percentage of voter turnout in 1944 was higher than that of 2011, despite the fact that at that time, the campaigners never had radio and TV at their disposal and could reach voters only by way of street-corner meetings and house-to-house canvassing. One winning rural candidate traversed his constituency by donkey and 'foot-mobile'.

HIGH TUrNOUT

Masses of people on the list were voting for the first time under adult suffrage. Most had never before seen a ballot box; many could neither read nor write. They had to walk great distances to polling stations, but the percentage of participants was higher than in the 2011 election.

Those were the days of hope and aspiration. Just six years before that first embrace of universal adult suffrage, the English politician, Sir Stafford Cripps, following the launching of the People's National Party, had remarked on the challenge posed by an uneducated electorate. He had written in a British newspaper, The Tribune:

"The initial difficulty with which they will meet is that there never has been any national politics in Jamaica, and the great mass of the people are politically unconscious. At the present time, the only politics that exists is those of the parish pump.

"Out of the million and a quarter inhabitants, there are scarcely more than 50,000 votes because of a property or income qualification. The result is, not unnaturally, that the rest - the great majority of the people - cannot be very interested in politics. The first task of the new party will be the political education of the common people."

That generation of ordinary Jamaicans did not fail the test in 1944. They took on the task of representational politics in a way that the masses of 2011 did not. The question is: Why?

HOPE AND EXPECTATION

Studies indicate that people will vote in reasonable numbers when there is confidence in the system and the hope and expectation that better will come. They go eagerly to the polls when there are issues that they understand and are motivated to be concerned about. More than 82 per cent did so in 1976 when large numbers were either for or against Michael Manley's democratic socialism; and they repeated voluminous voting in 1980 when the very survival of the country seemed at stake.

The worrying question of voter apathy in Jamaica is now on the table, thanks to Mr Warmington. Some sensitive citizens will disagree with his bare-knuckle approach and his simplistic solution to the problem. Surely, if he interferes with any taxpayer's constitutional rights, he must be made to suffer the consequences.

However, instead of castigating his style and speech, it might serve all of us better to be investigating the cause of this spreading frustration with politics and government. We have an opportunity to analyse and correct a troubling threat to our democracy. Yet days after the outburst, civil society and spokespersons for the two political parties seem only too willing to let the matter rest with an apology from the messenger.

DISREGARDING EDUCATION

The situation is quite challenging as from all appearances, neither party considers it necessary to have an educated population that understands issues and is motivated to participate in public affairs. Their primary purpose is to bash each other and to win elections by any means necessary.

Non-governmental organisations have their own special interests, which do not include public education on national issues. The school system places no emphasis on this aspect of our lives; and the Government, prone to secrecy and the hatching of plans behind closed doors, more often than not, treats the people as subjects rather than clients who pay for their services. In terms of trust and confidence, neither one is attracting much support. No wonder that people no longer bother to exercise their franchise to choose a political representative.

May I suggest to Mr Warmington that instead of spiting non-voters, he, as his party's whip, might do Jamaica a favour by getting his colleagues to find a philosophy and begin to educate and inspire voters to rally to it. The present voter apathy proves that you can't buy loyalty, nor can you legislate for it.

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