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Keiran King: Jamaica is not a democracy

Published:Wednesday | August 20, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Keiran King, Online Columnist

If we didn’t lie to ourselves, life would be unbearable. An honest appraisal of our bellies, billets and bank accounts would lead most of us to depression, so we enchant ourselves with comfortable falsehoods. We say that inner beauty is what matters, despite studies showing that attractive people are more successful. We insist that someday we’ll make it big, even though income inequality in Jamaica is worse than in Haiti. And we continue to believe that we live in a democracy, in the face of dispiriting evidence to the contrary.

Politicians and armchair philosophers tend to pooh-pooh such blanket statements as hyperbole or histrionics. Armed with a pocket Oxford, it seems obvious that in Jamaica, ‘the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them’. And there discussion ends, quod erat democracy.

But if we are using such a basic qualifying exam, our graduating class must also include China, where you can vote in provincial elections but you can’t tweet about them, and Libya, whose ‘Western’ parliamentary government is younger than celebrityke North West.

Clearly, when we talk about democracy, we mean something a little more sophisticated than the way schoolboys organise themselves into scrimmage teams (“Okay, you and Devon pick the sides”). In the context of a nation-state, what we usually want is a modern liberal democracy, which is a fancy way of saying our elected officials will protect everybody’s rights, whether we voted for them or not, and indeed whether we can vote for them or not. What separates Angola from Australia, Belarus from Belgium, and Chad from Chile is not really their systems of governance, but that in the former, only the rights of the majority are respected, and in the latter, the rights of minorities matter a great deal, too.

Liberal democracies are easy to spot — they have free and fair elections, between parties with real differences, where the citizens obey the rule of law, and in exchange the government safeguards their freedoms. That’s a fairly simple syllabus to study, so let’s see how Jamaica does in this advanced course.

Right away, we’re in trouble. For the last 40 years, our capital city has been a broken mirror, with sharply delineated communities drawing blood every election cycle. These splintered garrisons function as political blocs, with local dons allied to local members of parliament, and party allegiance ruthlessly enforced. There might be a perverse kind of fairness in both the PNP and JLP playing these war games, but surely we can agree that many Kingstonians do not enjoy freedom of political expression. When your ghettoes are named after notorious global hot spots (Gaza, Vietnam, Tel Aviv, et al), you know something is rotten in the state of your democracy.

This sense of barely contained lawlessness pervades every area of public life in Jamaica. We park on the sidewalk and walk in the road; we speed through red lights and stop in the middle of dual carriageways; we evade taxes and provoke fights; we steal bicycles and phones and electricity and piles of gravel; we arrive late and leave work early; we sleep on the job, sleep through church and then sleep around on our spouses. In fact, subverting authority and being unashamed of it (“Fire fi Babylon!”) is part of our national identity. With overwhelmed judges and underpaid policemen, laws in Jamaica aren’t so much stipulations as suggestions.

Since we can’t bother to play by the rules, it’s hardly surprising that our leaders can’t bother to look out for all the players. Earlier this year, mass rallies designed to intimidate and denigrate gay Jamaicans were met with appalling silence by politicians, who value their popularity more than their principles. Domestic abuse is a nationwide epidemic, but women can find little recourse in state programmes or protections. And government officials openly discourage religious tolerance. Case in point — Junior Minister Damion Crawford, who said publicly last week, “All of a sudden everybody a atheist and agnostic and undecided and non-believer unuh need fi rahtid stop it... that a nuh Jamaica.

Fair elections? Not really. Rule of law? Not so much. Universal civil rights? Not even close. Although in theory we are a liberal democracy, in practice, Jamaica is a populist tribal theocracy, ruled by short-sighted strongmen with a Bible in one hand and a bulletproof vest in the other, one well-timed uprising away from being a failed state. This is why we are treated like background entertainment in the international community.

It isn’t because we are a small country (Luxembourg is smaller, with a fifth the population) or because we are a young country (Singapore is younger and has political clout). It’s because we are an incompetent country, whose contribution to the world stage is limited to music and athletics.

Depressing? Maybe, but there’s a 52-year-old bit of paper that claims the power to change it lies entirely with us.

Keiran King is a writer and producer. His column is on indefinite hiatus as he pursues higher education. Find him on Twitter @keiranwking. Email feedback to and