Take a Walk Portia, Bruce

Puublished: Sunday | July 22, 2007

Politics is a messy, convoluted business because human beings are messy, convoluted creatures. The average public office seeker is probably no less honest or truthful than the average voter. But, while we quickly adjust our own opinions to life's unpredictability, politicians are pilloried for changing their minds when the facts change. Very often, we condemn them most vigorously for the sins we feel most guilty of. How many private lives would pass muster if put under press scrutiny?

True, politicians generally have big egos and love to hear themselves talk. But the job requires these traits. Why run for office if you don't consider yourself exceptional enough to make a real difference? And, if you don't keep telling people to vote for you, who will? There are obviously lots of lazy, greedy, hypocritical politicians out there. But, at least, those who seek public office are actually trying to do something about the country's problems, as opposed to just talking about them like the rest of us.

Office seekers

Shameless, opportunistic crooks or not, you can't have a democracy without office seekers. Someone has to run the country. Yes, few things are as irritating as politicians' endless promise-making and breaking. They just never seem to keep their word. But people who want power spout sugar-coated lies mainly because they don't think voters are mature enough to accept the unvarnished truth.

Electorates crave simple, quick, cheap and painless answers. But serious problems usually require complex, long-term, expensive and sacrifice-demanding solutions. Plus, circumstances are always changing. When the public demands a simple, definitive answer on today's situation, when you know the scenario tomorrow might be different and complicated, well what choice is there but to prevaricate and dissemble?

Can you imagine a stump speech like this?

"I really don't see any prospects for economic growth until Jamaicans get better educated and work harder. And we will only have enough money to fix the roads and hospitals when people pay their proper taxes. And we have so many murders because most young men get no male guidance at all, and usually don't even know their fathers."

Talk about a guaranteed election loser. Far better, if you really want to attain power, to keep telling poor people how much you love them or to promise free education and health care for all.

Armchair observers

As in all other spheres of life, political problems seem a lot easier to solve from the outside. Armchair observers glibly toss off simplistic suggestions with a condescending shrug – "The solution is so obvious these guys must be morons not to do it immediately". But being about two parts emotion to one part intellect, politics does not always lend itself to logical, straightforward plans of action. Lots of people are against every thing, every time. So, pleasing most of the people, most of the time, which is the definition of a successful politician, can be a very roundabout business.

Yet, the buck must stop somewhere. There are times when politicians have to stand up for what they truly believe, or forfeit the public trust. In last year's Budget Debate speech, Opposition Leader Bruce Golding invited Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to walk hand-in-hand with him through the nation's inner cities to show tribalised party supporters that their leaders do not share their mutual antagonism. Mrs. Simpson Miller accepted the invitation in her speech. But, we have heard nothing more on the matter from either.

As president of the National Democratic Movement, Golding made a similar challenge to then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson and Opposition Leader Edward Seaga. When both dismissed the idea, Golding criticised them bitterly. Now he has the chance to walk the talk, as does Mrs. Simpson Miller. If they fail to keep their word, I personally will have great difficulty in believing anything either of them says again.

People on the ground tell me our politics is becoming more peaceful and less violent. For one thing, strong media competition means the electorate is now far better informed. Former PM P.J. Patterson must also be credited for his non-confrontational example and for giving the Electoral Commission real teeth. Thanks to Danville Walker's vigilance, such things as stuffed or stolen ballot boxes and pre-marked ballots are rapidly becoming things of the past. While Ombudsman Herro Blair has managed to get both sides to accept his moral suasion. Jamaican politics now has umpires who must be obeyed, at least in public.

Hand-in-hand walk

Still, recent shooting incidents show we are still a good distance away from the democratic ideal of everyone being able to disagree openly without fear of reprisals. A hand-in-hand walk from our leaders would surely be another strong push along this road.

Would it not be grand to see Mrs. Simpson Miller and Mr. Golding marching together on Nomination Day through their bordering constituencies while exchanging party colours? A PNP Prime Minister wearing green together with a JLP Opposition Leader wearing orange would be a historic scene, and make all these public commitments about 'peace' a lot more believable.

Many say it's just a pipe dream, though no one can give any concrete reason why. Frankly, there are times when "It's politically impossible" is just not good enough. At least, not if our leaders want us to believe that they truly put their country before party or self.

I once worked on a weather prediction project in Canada. We found that the best forecast of what the weather would be like tomorrow was what the weather was like today. Rain today, rain tomorrow and sunny today, sunny tomorrow was the safest bet.Politics is like the weather

Jamaican politics is a bit like that. History says that the most likely winner of a general election is the party that won the preceding local government elections. There have been 11 contested general elections preceded by local government elections. (Exceptions were: 1944 – the first election of any kind; 1983 – uncontested general elections; 1997 – no local government elections after the 1993 general elections. Incidentally, are 1983 and 1997 not strong arguments in favour of a fixed date for both local government and general elections?)

In nine of these instances, the party that won the local government elections won the following general election. However, between the 1960 local government elections and the 1962 general election there was a West Indies Federation referendum in 1961. The JLP-backed 'vote no to federalism' won the referendum over the incumbent government PNP-supported 'vote yes', and the JLP then won the following 1962 general election.

So, in strict terms, the near civil war ideologically-divided 1980 vote was the only instance of a party winning a general election after losing the preceding non-general election.

On three occasions, the incumbent party actually lost the local government elections – 1951, 1969 and 1986. In each case, that party was voted out in the next general election – 1955, 1972, 1989. Factoring in the 1961 referendum and the 1962 general election makes the pattern even clearer. Every governing party that has lost a non-general election has lost the next general election.

In the 2003 local government elections, the victorious JLP got 51.4 per cent of the vote and the incumbent PNP 48.1 per cent. Extrapolating on a seat-by-seat basis using the 2002 general election data gives the JLP 35 seats and the PNP 25. They say never make predictions, especially about the future. But history suggests this is a not unlikely outcome come August 27.

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