Democracy at its Best, and Worst
Published: Sunday | August 12, 2007

Is Jamaica the world's most exuberant democracy? Only a political globetrotter could say for sure. But our party conferences and meetings must be as electric as any on the planet. And it's not as if we're just discoveringthe joys of choosing our own destiny. Forty-five years of largely free and fair multi-party elections, adhering to the rule of law, and remaining coup- and assassination-free is no mean achievement.

Surely, not many other mature democracies have scenes like those we saw on Nomination Day. A similar ethos probably prevails in our sister islands like Trinidad and Barbados. But then, we share the same West Indian culture that at its best blends so marvellously African joie de vivre with British order.

The carnival-like Nomination Day atmosphere of orange- and green-clad supporters dancing together is living colour proof that Jamaican democracy is in rude health. A couple months back I attended a party rally in Mandeville that struck me as the finest possible advertisement for democracy. There was continuous music and laughter and cheering and a riveting platform speech, and not a single untoward incident from start to finish. I pushed through the massive crowd for 45 minutes to get to the radio booth and did not hear a cross word from anyone. And I kept wondering throughout if anywhere else in the world has such thoroughly enjoyable and exciting political gatherings. It was simply democracy at its best.

Sad to say, Jamaica can also be democracy at its worst. The August 8 Jamaica Observer headline summed it up - 'Joy and grief: Death, clashes, celebration mark Nomination Day.' This country enjoys an almost complete emotional freedom that, if not unique, is exceedingly rare. But too often ecstasy boils over into anger and confrontation. The great challenge facing our authorities really is how to control a populace that revels in and often insists on living on the edge.

I've no doubt that if they could party leaders would do away with such things as motorcades with bodies hanging out. But there is a football fan fervour about Jamaican politics. People want to actively support their party in a public way. As the existentialists might say, ours is a truly engaged democracy. Sometimes the motorcadesstart spontaneously as enthusiastic supporters follow behind their candidates until a critical mass develops. And the occasional tragedy does nothing to deter participants. The bamboo collision death of a 'hanging out' supporter a few weeks back has not diminished the practice one iota.

As to the political violence, well there has not really been a spike in the murder rate during an election campaign since 1980. What we do have is a very high homicide level that continues through elections. So 100 people killed during an election month is really the norm for any 30-day period. Furthermore, gangs reportedly use elections as a cover to settle non-political scores. The killing of someone purely because they are JLP or PNP is said to be a rarity these days. Though in this election we have seen more reports of actively JLP supporters being gunned down, and these deaths seem to happen in only certain areas.

Jamaicans love to laugh

Now, Jamaicans love to laugh and, not surprisingly, political ads try to cater to this. The PNP's efforts have been astonishingly lame, and it's difficult to believe this is the same vaunted Comrade machine that won four straight general elections. I don't know which is worse, that horse's mouth TV ad, or those slippers and boot full-page newspaper spreads. The JLP: on the other hand, has been consistently on the money. The 'Nah change no course' campaign took life because of its humorous touch. And 'Disconnect Portia' is pretty funny stuff. I'm not so sure about 'Draw me tongue' though. It's so powerful as to be almost frightening.

But the best political humour is often unintended. It sure was amusing to watch Dr. Ken Baugh squirm in the social issues TV debate when Emily Crooks read back his 1984 Gleaner statement that the country could not afford free health, and asked how come he has changed his mind. The good doctor waffled mightily but never gave a clear answer to his beautiful inquisitor.

But so far nothing beats the PNP manifesto presentation, where Dr. Peter Phillips thundered "We will not make any wild promises!", only to reveal a plan to achieve 100 per cent literacy within five years. Even more hilariously, as the August 10 Gleaner pointed out, this same pledge was made in the party's 2002 manifesto. Judging by this past performance, they would probably have been better off promising to air-condition Santa Cruz.

But it got even better when Prime Minister Portia Simpson went on about Jamaica soon growing at 6 to 7 per cent a year. Which is rather consistent with that quite catchy 'Not changing course' PNP jingle, since P.J. Patterson made that same prediction a few years back. We're still waiting.

Naturally, there was that old standby "We subscribe to achieving: Zero tolerance against acts of corruption at all levels ... Transparency and accountability in

the granting of contracts and spending of public funds." Considering what transpired with Trafigura and Solutrea - a minister resigning but remaining as senator and a minister acting as his own judge and jury - even Phillip Paulwell and Colin Campbell must have chuckled over this one.

As to the Prime Minister's pledge to appoint an independent National Investigative Agency in the first 100 days of her new term, well why didn't she do this in the first 500 days of her old term? Will such an agency really spare us such mockeries as Mr. Paulwell investigating himself? And just how does one calculate "tremendous growth in the informal sector', which is by definition not able to be measured?

Given all the shameless repetition, it seems that either the authors of this 2007 manifesto never read the 2002 document or figured no one in the public did. Though to be fair to the PNP, a government manifesto is always a tougher sell than an Opposition's. It's much easier, especially in so lazily inefficient a country as Jamaica, to point out what has not been done.

While wanting in many areas, this 18 year old PNP administration is not without accomplishments. Though some wonder if the overall quality has improved, there is now a 96 per cent enrolment in early childhood schools, universal access to secondary education, and 26 per cent secondary to tertiary level enrolment. Kingston now has one of the top ports in world. The current foreign investment influx is the biggest since the 1960s and the largest in the Caribbean basin. And I am extremely grateful for that time saving Mandeville to Kingston highway.

But have the comrades done enough, and can the labourites do better? Though there seems to be an increasing sentiment for change out there, not everyone is convinced. The JLP has been extremely fuzzy on how they will fund free health and education. But then how does the PNP plan to pay for those 4,000 additional police officers, whose salaries alone would amount to at least two billion per year?

At this rate the Jamaican electorate will have no choice but to vote for the most original samfie man.

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