Except for Switzerland and Sweden, the only countries to enjoy uninterrupted democratic rule between 1914 and 1945 were Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This was no accident. As the black American Economist Thomas Sowell wrote.


“While many other countries copied British systems of law and government, those that succeeded in creating similarly free governments largely came from the same tradition. For the historical experiences that were distilled into powerful traditions were essential to the functioning of the legal and political institutions themselves. While these institutions could be copied by anyone, the history and traditions behind them could not be synthesized, and it was these intangibles that made the tangible institutions and structures work.”


Whatever else their sins, our colonial masters did a wonderful job of inculcating in Jamaicans a profoundly democratic outlook. This nation’s political experience from 1944 to 1962 was an almost textbook example of phased responsibility. And since gaining independence Jamaica has held regular multi-party elections, remained assassination free, suffered no serious uprisings, and maintained a free press. These might seem rather common place achievements, but over the past four decades very few countries of over a million people can make the same collective claim. Indeed they can almost be counted on two hands: Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Japan, Switzerland, Costa Rica. In a global perspective, Jamaica is indisputably a great democratic success story.


These democratic traditions were severely tested in the violent run-up to the1980 elections when a parliamentary candidate was killed and the possibility of bullets and not ballots determining political power became a frightening reality. But in the end people once again voted, ballots were counted and all sides accepted the results - British instilled tradition held. Today Jamaica faces a different but conceivably equally worrying scenario. P.J. Patterson and the PNP probably have no inherent dictatorial tendencies. But the virtual disintegration of the opposition Labour party has left the nation a de facto one party state.


Since Bruce Golding’s defection the JLP has descended into unbelievable chaos.  Edward Seaga has obviously held on to power too long - five defeats in a row should make anyone realize it is time to go. But politicians rarely give up power voluntarily. Even the great Margaret Thatcher had to be forced out by erstwhile colleagues when she lost touch with the electorate. But Seaga’s deputies have short-sightedly put their individual leadership ambitions before all else. Instead of uniting around one person and giving Seaga no option but to resign or be defeated in a party poll, JLP deputies have chosen to fight among themselves until only one is left standing. Apparently they all prefer to reign over a desert than be second in Rome, because the party’s next leader will inherit a discredited shell.


Since taking power in 1989 the PNP has done little right – the murder rate has doubled, the dollar has gone from $5.50 to $38, the environment has deteriorated and the economy has stagnated. Yet the PNP would be odds on to win any election held today. With the JLP apparently unable to even co-ordinate internal elections and one of its own deputy leaders taking the party to court, its credibility as an alternative government has been almost completely destroyed. Few Jamaicans could relish the prospect of seeing this confused organization take charge of the nation’s affairs.


This cannot be healthy for Jamaica, because the essence of democracy is choice. What generally makes elected politicians put the welfare of the people before personal aggrandizement is the realization that if they don’t, someone else will promise to, and people will vote for that opposition. A government which has no fear of losing power will, more often than not, do as it pleases and not as the people wish.


A constitution alone is no defense against corruption. Political documents are but pieces of paper unless backed by an electorate’s will. Many dictatorships have model constitutions, which of course are completely ignored. Americans are guaranteed liberty by their Constitution, but enjoy no more freedom than Australians. England, history’s most successful democracy, has no written constitution. Yet a (sometimes scurrilously) free press and the constant vigilance (as it grasps for power) of her majesty’s loyal opposition have produced over three unbroken centuries of peaceful government. Ultimately all political checks and balances rest on the willingness and ability of the populace to vote misbehaving ministers out of office.


The fate of countries where governments rule unchallenged is usually not pleasant to contemplate. The February 20-26 edition of the Economist includes an article called “Party Time in South Africa” which warns that unless a strong opposition emerges, South Africa might become a one party state like Zimbabwe. Here are a couple paragraphs.


“When Mr. Mugabe came to power in Zimbabwe, he was almost as well regarded as Mr. Mandela is today. Like Mr. Mandela, he was personally honest, he set about providing clean water and health care for the poor, and he preached reconciliation between blacks and their white former oppressors. But the understandable desire to redress past grievances spawned a policy of filling most senior public jobs with blacks, regardless of ability. “Africanisation” became a smokescreen for patronage.


The government concentrated on dividing the public pie among its supporters, rather than increasing the national wealth. The main opposition leader, Joshua Nkomo, against whose followers the ruling party had fought a bitter civil war, was bought off with a vice-presidency and a fat salary. The lack of serious opposition left Zimbabwe’s ruling party free to plunder. Spirited criticism of the government only re-emerged last year, when the economy crashed and food riots swept the cities.”


Lord Acton’s famous dictum is now a cliché, but it still rings true. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


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