Jamaica's Amazingly Normal Democracy

Published: Sunday | May 27, 2007

Peoples National Party Member of Parliament Victor Cummings left, chats with Jamaica Labour Party supporters at a polling station in Kingston during the West Kingston by-election on Wednesday April 13, 2005. - Ian Allen/Staff Photographer

While other economies expand at six and eight per cent a year, we rejoice at reaching two per cent. Jamaica has not grown at anything close to the world average since 1989 and maybe even before that. We are falling farther and farther behind in the global economic race.

It is the same with crime. How many countries at peace have seen the murder rate more than triple in 18 years? Even former murder capitals such as South Africa and Colombia have cut their homicide rates sharply over the past decade, while ours keeps climbing inexorably. A recent World Bank report on Crime in the Caribbean estimates that if Jamaica reduced its homicide rate to Costa Rican levels, annual GDP growth would increase by 5.4 per cent.

This study also demolishes the 'It's education, low growth, poverty, inequality, too many young men that's driving murder' myths. Charts graphing international murder rates versus economic growth, GDP per capita, income inequality, population age, and education all show that Jamaica has a far higher homicide level than similar countries. Our predicted rate is about 10 per 100,000 or about 250 murders per year, a fifth of our current 1250 plus.

Predetermined constituencies

The report attributes our 'murder surplus' to the illegal drug trade. But it would be interesting to see family structure taken into account. Is their any country with an 85 per cent out of wedlock birthrate, which does not have a serious murder problem?

Poor, violent countries usually suffer from chronic instability. But considering our other problems, the Jamaican political scene is amazingly normal. While far more economically successful countries than us suffer coups and see oppositions beaten and jailed and journalists intimidated and shot, the media discourse here resembles that in America or Britain.

Pockets of real concern remain, particularly the 'garrisons'. It cannot be good for any democracy to have about 20 per cent of its constituencies predetermined. To be sure this is a far from unknown phenomenon elsewhere - less than 10 per cent of the seats in the US Congress are competitive, the rest having been rendered 'safe' by partisan gerrymandering.

In Jamaica, however, our 'safe seats' are often made so by violence, and one party has a substantial edge in 'gun garrisons' - most objective estimates give the People's National Party (PNP) a seven to three advantage. So far, no overall election has been determined by 'safe' seats, though 2002 came close. Yet, our luck cannot last forever.

Still, the big electoral picture is the healthiest it has ever been.

Electoral Entrenched

Director of Elections Danville Walker and Political Ombudsman Herro Blair have been impressively impartial and gained universal respect. No one questions their rulings. While things such as tainted voters' lists, non-private voting and stuffed ballot boxes seem to be rapidly becoming things of the past.

At the heart of every successful democracy is an impartial civil service dedicated to country and oblivious of party. People such as Mr. Walker, Mr. Blair and Contractor General Greg Christie have been shining examples of this ideal and restored many people's faith in our public servants.

To any reader of the world press it is remarkable how entrenched Jamaica's democratic process is. No one here can even conceive of another method of choosing our leaders except in a parliamentary vote. It is virtually impossible to even imagine a coup or revolution taking place here. Who would lead it? What issues could they rally followers around? What route to power could they take?

Even in violent garrisons the personal safety of political candidates has not been an issue since 1980, when Member of Parliament Roy McGann became the only Jamaican politician ever assassinated. The last street demonstration of any size here was the gas riots over eight years ago, which was certainly no threat to the established order.

We are one of the few countries on Earth where the legitimacy of an elected government has never been challenged in any way, shape or form. But like our balmy almost-perfect year-round weather, we take for granted this democratic stability, which so many elsewhere envy. Just another example of our so common 'spoil pickney' sense of entitlement.

Still you cannot get complacent, and the recent public commitment to peaceful elections by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and Opposition Leader Bruce Golding deserves salutations all round. Their public embrace was a great example to their more volatile followers. Let us hope that when the upcoming election is called, both will fulfil last year's budget speech pledges to walk hand in hand through inner-city garrisons. Wouldn't it be grand to see Portia and Bruce lead an orange and green nomination day parade through say, Tivoli and Payne Avenue?

Jamaica has not had a violent election since 1980's near civil war. In none of the 1989, 1993, 1997 and 2002 campaigns did the murder rate go up significantly. Considering the structural electoral advances, it is hard to see why the situation would change this time around. Yet, at times our media seemsto be almost willing political violence.

One recent egregious example was the May 21 Star front page story 'Political War Hits Schools'. There was not a shred of real evidence given to back up the headline. A vigilant media are indispensable to healthy democracy. But so is a responsible one.


One indication of Jamaica's political maturity is the media coverage of polls. The average man in the street pays as little attention to these as he does to budget speeches. But our chattering classes, as in the United States and United Kingdom, make much ado about them.

Unlike say America, Jamaica does not have enough polls for biases or mistakes to automatically cancel out each other. And pollsters are only as good as their latest results. So, how do our official pollsters - Bill Johnson, Don Anderson and Stone, though Mark Wignall seems to be forming his own - stack up?

In the 2002 general election Johnson predicted a 15-point PNP victory, but they triumphed by only four per cent. In the recent St. Lucian election he called a massive governing party victory only to see the opposition win 11 of 17 seats. His current constituency polls also contradict his national ones. In the five seats for which he has published polls, four went to the PNP in 2002. His current numbers show the JLP leading in three and two tied, with an overall JLP seven per cent swing. Yet, his national poll has the PNP in front. No wonder even diehard comrades have little confidence in their official pollster.


In 2002, the hithero infallible Stone/Wignall polls had the PNP two points ahead three days before the election, yet a suspicious new one rushed out on election eve showed the PNP 10 points up. Many feel this influenced the election, and their credibility has not recovered. But for what it's worth, Wignall said the JLP leads in all eight constituency polls he has done this year.

Only Anderson called the election within the margin of error in 2002. His latest polls show the JLP with a slight 31% to 29% leadwhen probable party voters are included. But it's a political truism that undecided voters tend to break for challengers, since they already know the incumbent's record. When you add in the constituency polls of Johnson and Wignall, Labour seems favourite to win. But the finish line is still far away, and many frontrunners fade down the stretch.

Jamaica is famous worldwide as a land of excitement. But let us hope that in the political arena we continue to be a boringly predictable democracy with routinely free, fair and peaceful elections.

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