Thu | Jun 8, 2023

Arnold Bertram: Jamaica’s deepening crisis of governance

Published:Friday | March 4, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Arnold Bertram
A Jamaica Labour Party supporter makes the V-sign in support of Andrew Holness at his swearing-in ceremony last Thursday.

The orderly transfer of power which installed the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration confirms Jamaica's place among the handful of countries that have not marred their record of political stability with assassination of political leaders, civil war, military takeover, or one-party dictatorship.

However, no one can deny the deepening crisis of governance which threatens our proud record of parliamentary democracy. It is a crisis that has its roots in the absence of renewal in our political parties, which, in turn, erodes their legitimacy in the political process. This degeneration did not begin with the present political leaders, but there is no doubt that it has accelerated over the last decade.

The JLP's one-seat victory over the PNP is the narrowest margin since 1944 and it is on this tenuous social base that Andrew Holness will preside over Jamaica's fifth political administration in 10 years. P.J. Patterson retired in 2006 and Portia Simpson Miller succeeded him. Coming to office with a 74 per cent approval rating, she lost to Bruce Golding in the 2007 election. Golding would soon discover that by choosing the constituency of Western Kingston, he had shot himself in the foot, and never recovered from the dismantling of the international criminal enterprise that operated from Tivoli Gardens.

With 15 months to go to the end of his term, Golding resigned and was succeeded by Andrew Holness, whose tenure lasted a mere three months, before he lost to Portia Simpson Miller in the election of 2011. In the recent election, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's losing gamble of calling an election 15 months early has given Andrew Holness his second term as prime minister.

The depth of the crisis of governance can be measured by the fact that no political leader since P.J. Patterson has successfully completed a single term of office and the present JLP government has been elected by less than one-quarter of the eligible voters. The increasing withdrawal of an increasing majority from active participation in the political life of the country is now a reality with which we must contend.

While ineffective political leadership feeds the crisis, its roots go back to the introduction of liberalisation and deregulation which established the ascendancy of the market. Since then, we have experienced the sobering reality that the political parties and the governments they form have surrendered their traditional role to "regulate and protect the local market, foster import substitution and manufacturing and redistribute revenues in the form of a social wage". (Robotham: Jamaica in the Neo-Liberal Era) The question that inevitably follows is: What then is the value of independence and politics if it is the market that will run things?

The vacuum left by the withdrawal of the middle class and organised labour from politics has been filled substantially by the unemployed, the lumpen proletariat and those who provide the money to buy the votes of these groups.






It is said that in every new political situation, old enemies become new friends, and vice versa. This was most clearly reflected in the extent to which Peter Phillips' impressive record of economic management united large sections of the entrepreneurial class to provide vocal and material support for the PNP. Given the divide that developed in the 1970s between the PNP and the capitalist class, this was indeed a major achievement. No less a person than Andrew Holness confirmed the dramatic turnaround in the Jamaican economy during the PNP administration.

In 2011, after four years of the JLP, Andrew Holness, on the eve of the general election that year, could only promise the Jamaican people "bitter medicine". Now, after four years of Jamaica's economic reform programme under Phillips, Holness was able to promise the electorate to remove personal income tax from salaries up to J$1.5m; remove user fees in schools; increase the minimum wage for all public-sector workers; and to pay trainees a stipend.

The challenge for the leadership of the PNP is to create an environment in which this new alliance can be consolidated by ensuring that the entrepreneurial class play a major role in the rebuilding of the party.

Equally path-breaking was Holness' bold gamble in risking fiscal prudence to win over by offering the PNP's traditional bedrock of political support - the teachers, civil servants and other middle-class groups - a generous tax concession. It is yet to be quantified the number of traditional PNP votes from these groups that went over to the JLP. What is impatient of debate is that Holness jumped the PNP by placing the equity question on the national agenda in such a manner that no future administration will be able to ignore it.



The JLP's tax break and other election promises, however, are by no means a done deal. From all appearances, Holness has given himself a hard row to hoe. He could well deepen the crisis of governance by committing his administration to expenditures for which there seems to be no fiscal space.

If at the end of the Budget Debate it becomes clear to the public that Prime Minister Holness' election promises were nothing but a cynical ploy to maximise his party's chance of winning the election, the response of the public to this act of betrayal could well paralyse his administration and force a new election. At another level, such levels of fiscal irresponsibility would certainly weaken the confidence and trust of the international financial community and erode Jamaica's standing with the IMF.

The results of the general election revealed the extent of the degeneration within the PNP. Unbelievably, for the first time, the PNP proved incapable of bringing out its own base and polled some 30,000 votes fewer than in 2011. The PNP went into Election 2016 with its base divided on the question of confidence in its leadership.

The well-deserved appointment of Peter Phillips as deputy prime minister would certainly have made the PNP far more united and energised. Given the challenges the PNP administration faced in taking the country through an austerity programme, the exclusion of Fitz Jackson and Julian Robinson from the Cabinet, despite their proven records of capacity and performance, was inexplicable.

The PNP has a lot of work to do, and leadership is the key. It is well established that "political leadership is a matter of programmes, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it or their oneness of origin with the people ...". The cooperation of a renewed PNP is as important as the capacity of the JLP administration to unifying the Jamaican people around a credible programme of sustainable development if we are to avoid the worst consequences of a crisis in governance.

- Arnold Bertram is a historian and former Cabinet minister. Email feedback to and