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Gleaner Editors' Forum | Charles: Political garrisons still thriving despite fall in violence

Published:Tuesday | October 1, 2019 | 12:11 AMCorey Robinson/Staff Reporter
Orette Fisher, former director of elections, making a point during the forum.
Orette Fisher, former director of elections, making a point during the forum.

Political violence may be on the decline since reaching a bloody climax in the 1980s, but according to researchers, garrison communities and their dons continue to stymie Jamaica’s elections and democracy despite numerous promises from politicians to do away with them.

Dr Christopher Charles, senior lecturer in the Department of Government at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, last week said garrison dons continue to drive fear into residents, especially in areas where they have multiplied economic clout and firepower.

“Their roles haven’t changed … . The garrisons, as they exist, still play the same function that the incumbent, the members of parliament in all the garrisons, cannot lose. So they effectively curtail political competition, which is one of the hallmarks of democracy,” said Charles, one of several guests at a Gleaner Editors’ Forum last Thursday.

While political reform has resulted in laws that could cause an election being voided in constituencies marked with high political violence, Charles said this has only curtailed the overt distribution of violence that was prominent decades ago.

Covertly, Charles said, “political-influencers” continue to wheel their power in these areas, sometimes without the consent or knowledge of politicians – and sometimes even outside of election periods.

“You cannot have a garrison without gunmen who support the political parties and it has morphed in such a way now that the gunmen don’t need instructions from anyone,” he said.

“They know they are in a PNP (People’s National Party) or JLP (Jamaica Labour Party) area, they support their parties, but they use their criminal muscle and their paramilitary muscle to support their political party,” Charles said, noting that this occurs on “both sides”.

Political Ombuds-man Donna Parchment Brown noted that her office was still investigating alleged incidents of political violence from the 2016 general election, but concurred that the reports have significantly dropped.

So, too, did former Director of Elections Orette Fisher, who noted, however, that political violence remains a key factor in deciding the locations of polling stations in some constituencies.

“I think we have come a very long way in terms of violence. The focus has shifted and the violence [is] much more subtle,” he said, noting that there are still reports of roadblocks, campaign buses being stoned, and ‘no-go’ areas for supporters of one political party or the other.

“So even in determining where you place polling stations, you have to look at the political layout because there are people who will refuse to go out and vote because they have to cross certain areas,” he said.

Bloodiest election

Meanwhile, Charles said politicians can still win him over in believing that they are willing to dismantle political garrisons.

“If I am to be convinced that they (politicians) are serious about dismantling garrisons, the first thing is that the JLP mass meeting for the next election, when it is called, would have to be launched in South St Andrew, and the PNP’s mass meeting for the next election has to be launched in Western Kingston in Tivoli Gardens,” he said.

Jamaica’s 1980 general election is regarded by many as one of the bloodiest in the country’s history with more than 700 politically related deaths reported.

The numbers include fiver persons murdered at a dance on Gold Street in Central Kingston, and the killing of a policeman and another man at the Hannah Town Police Station in West Kingston, which was attacked by thugs in the months leading up to the election.

One hundred and fifty-three female wards at the Eventide Home in central Kingston also lost their lives in a tragic fire, which was said to have been sparked by political hostilities. The victims were buried in a mass grave at the National Heroes Park.