Democracy, Leadership and Elections in Jamaica

Basil Wilson's picture

All signs point to early elections in Jamaica.  The new voter’s list was completed at the end of September and will be ready by the beginning of December.  It would be unethical for the Portia Simpson Miller’s government to call elections before the new voter’s list is ready.  That would mean that elections for this year is unlikely as there would have to be at least 21 days for campaigning after nomination day.

Jamaica has come a long way in strengthening the democratic process.  The rampant political violence that marred the electoral process that began in 1967 appears to have abated.  The 2011 election had the lowest level of violence since 1967 and party supporters have recognized the folly of political violence.

The Electoral Commission in Jamaica has brought a professional and non-partisan approach to the registering of voters and the overseeing of elections.  Neither political party questions the integrity of the non-partisan Commission. Fraud has been eliminated on any grand scale.  Nonetheless, what continues to mar the electoral process is the way in which money has corrupted the process.  Legislation was passed for the public financing of elections but it is my understanding that the next election will not be under the new rules of public financing.

What is of great interest as we prepare for the pending elections is the deepening of the democratic process in both Parties.  We are witnessing a number of unprecedented activities.  There was a time when no one dared to challenge the Party Leader. Portia Simpson Miller has been challenged vis-à-vis her leadership in the PNP. Those challenges have failed and it is quite unlikely that there will be any more challenges to her leadership until she opts to ride into the sunset.

Challenging Party leadership in the Jamaica Labor Party has occurred quite frequently over the last two decades.  Mr. Seaga’s string of defeats caused great dissatisfaction within the ranks of the JLP but he was able to overcome any challenge to his leadership.  That is why the ambitious Bruce Golding left the JLP and tried his fortunes with the National Democratic Movement.  Third parties notoriously wither in the vine and NDM was no exception.
Mr. Golding got his opportunity for JLP leadership when Mr. Seaga was enticed into retirement by wealthy donors and accepted a Chair in his honor at the University of the West Indies.

Mr. Golding returned to the fold of the JLP and led that Party out of the 18 year wilderness that it had endured from1989 until 2007.  Mr. Golding’s leadership was tested after the 2007 victory and that leadership was found wanting.  He was forced to resign and the Party opted for the youthful leadership of Andrew Holness.

Holness has stumbled and was recently challenged by Audley Shaw.  Not uncommon in the electoral process in Jamaica, delegates will take a candidate’s money and vote for his opponent.  Holness was able to withstand Audley Shaw’s challenge and will lead the JLP in the pending election.

There was a time in Jamaican politics that a sitting member of parliament was never challenged for re-election within his own Party.  The process has been opened up and quite a few incumbents have failed to hold on to their seats.  Gregory Mair in St. Catherine North East, who supported Audley Shaw, was forced from his constituency.  The former PNP parliamentarian, Sharon Hay-Webster, was hoping to make her crossing of the political aisle crowned with winning Mair’s vacated seat but she was trounced by Leslie Campbell, an Attorney at-Law in her quest for political resurrection.

Equally shocking was Dr. Christopher Tufton’s failure to win the seat in St. Catherine West Central that he was challenging for.  Tufton who is regarded as a politician with leadership capabilities lost to Devon Wint by 15 votes.  He doesn’t seem to have mastered grassroots politics.  He failed to hold on to his seat in the 2011 election and thus far has failed to win the right to be a candidate in the next election.  There is talk that the Party hierarchy could provide him with a seat.

A few of the PNP incumbents will watch the next election from the sidelines.  Damion Crawford lost his bid to represent the PNP in East Rural St. Andrew.  Crawford opposed the traditional patronage politics in his constituency and the voters rewarded businessman Peter Blake with the honor of representing the East Rural St. Andrew in the next election.  Others have bitten the dust which is a true testimony of democratic “runnings” in Jamaica.  In addition, Raymond Pryce was defeated by Evon Redman in St. Elizabeth North East and Dr. Lynvale Bloomfield lost his seat in Portland East.

Elections are won when a Party can mobilize its base, raise the necessary funds and transport its supporters to the polls.  But there is more than organizational issues.  Jamaicans place a heavy emphasis on who is the Party Leader.  Portia Simpson Miller has not gained the confidence of the Jamaican middle class but she remains popular with the PNP base.  Her administration has not been marred by any charges of corruption.

Holness has had cracks in his Party that he has been able to overcome.  He has not proven himself to be a dynamic leader and it is clear that if he loses the next election, the Party will be scrambling for a replacement.

Political elections are often decided by the state of the economy.  The Jamaican economy has managed to hold inflation in check and interest rates have come down.  The government is generating a primary surplus and the budget is balanced and the ratio of the debt to GDP is declining.  The logistical hub in Kingston Harbour is still in the planning stages and the economic growth, hereto, has been miniscule.  Voters will assess where they are in terms of their economic wellbeing and make the momentous decision who will represent them for the next five years.  The next election will be the twelfth in the post-independence history of the country.  The holding of peaceful democratic elections should not be taken for granted.  Institutionalizing a culture of democracy is one of the great accomplishments of the Jamaican people.

*Dr. Basil Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the King Research Institute, Monroe College, Bronx, New York. He can be reached at: